Future of Pinellas mass transit discussed at Tiger Bay

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This afternoon, Tiger Bay tackled one of the largest problems facing Pinellas County — developing a better, more efficient mass transit system — by hosting a Pinellas Transportation Referendum.

Entering the Tiger’s Den for a luncheon with business and civic leaders was District 8 Councilman Jeff Danner and Brad Miller, executive director of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. 

They visited the Den for a number of reasons: to discuss the future of mass transit in the county, ways to address the rise in traffic congestion, and how to raise the money to pay for it all.

Among the nearly 100 Suncoast Tiger Bay members in attendance at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club were Pinellas County Commissioner and PSTA Board Member Janet Long, City Council Members Jim Kennedy and Leslie Curran, along with District 4 Candidate Carolyn Fries.

From the start, Danner and Miller made it clear that the challenge facing lawmakers and voters is to develop mass transit that can serve residents of the 24 different communities making up Pinellas County. They warned of the risk of doing nothing would be a “convergence” of congestion on routes like U.S. Hwy. 19 and the bridges connecting the Tampa Bay area.

Danner said that even with improved lane mileage by the FDOT in Pinellas County scheduled over the next 40 years, the amount of traffic is growing “at about three times that rate.”

If future growth in traffic is not addressed, Danner believes it might result in a worst-case scenario for Pinellas County, forcing legislators to turn to other routes—like Belcher and Ulmerton—for building high-traffic highways similar to U.S. Hwy. 19.

Another emphasis was a referendum promoted by Greenlight Pinellas, the transportation study and education group of the PSTA. Greenlight Pinellas was created  to analyze the problem, develop a plan of action and educate the public about the future of transportation in Pinellas County.

Both Miller and Danner say the right mix of transit options will boost the type of development where future generations will be encouraged to live near transportation. In other cities that developed light rail systems, a trend is for younger people to move to areas with access to mass transit, forgoing cars to get around.

“It’s not about building a train in Pinellas County,” Miller told the audience, “just because we are the last (major) metro area not to have one.”

“It is about helping our community,” he added.

After collecting data, examining existing ridership patterns and holding several public outreach sessions, proposals offered by Miller and the PSTA are much more than just building 24 miles of light rail.

Recommendations include improved connections to Westshore and Tampa, better Park and Ride Connections and route extensions on high traffic corridors such as Central Avenue. 
Another suggestion was developing Smart Card fare system, which would be valid for travel throughout the entire Tampa Bay region.

According to Miller, the first priority for the county is to create a balance between buses and rail. Any improvement in mass transportation must embrace a new way of looking at how area residents get around.

Of all the recommendations of Greenlight Pinellas, most radical change would be a complete overhaul of the basic PSTA bus route system.  Instead of the current hub system, where regular bus riders have to transfer often to get across the county, PSTA buses would switch to a grid network. The result would be increased stop frequencies to maximize service and reduce wait times.

“I love buses,” Miller said. “Buses will always carry the majority of riders. In Pinellas County, for the first time, buses will be the choice of travel for people who have cars.”

As for paying  for the more than $1.7 billion needed for mass transit improvements will be a proposed one percent sales tax, on the ballot in November 2014. This additional revenue could bring in more than $130 million a year, giving residents more for their money than just raising property taxes.

In the end, Miller said sales taxes are more cost-effective for mass transit. In Pinellas County, the sales tax would come from a wide range of people—residents, visitors and tourists alike—including people who do not own property in the county.

Visitors also use mass transit, and purchases made while on holiday will help pay for transportation upgrades.

Miller said there is strong support in the county for mass transit and light rail.

“Sixty percent of residents were willing to spend tax dollars on rail,” Miller said. “This is the Pinellas way.”

 For more information about Greenlight Pinellas and the plans for improving the county’s mass transit system, visit www.greenlightpinellas.com.  

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.