Is PSTA becoming this community’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’?

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For as many years as I can remember, St. Petersburg’s Williams Park, the downtown park which should serve as the city’s town center, has beena bus depot rather than a public setting, despite countless efforts to “clean up” the green space.

Many have wondered what Williams Park would look like if it were actually green space, rather than a transit hub.

“Eliminate the buses, and the park becomes inviting and accessible from all sides, not just Third Street,” said Christine Silva, who once hosted an ‘Art in the Park’ program at Williams.

One regular bus rider agreed, telling Creative Loafing: “I don’t mind how the buses are arranged so much, but I think the park needs to be a place that people feel they can enjoy. That’s an important thing, and I think right now people feel like they can’t enjoy it because there are people sleeping all over it.”

In other words, Williams Park is being held hostage by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, the public transit provider in the county.

Moving the buses out of Williams Park was first discussed in 1979 when the City of St. Petersburg conducted itsinitial site study for an in-town transfer center.  Promises to move the buses out of Williams have been made numerous times since then. Obviously, those promises have yet to come to fruition.

As a former member of the Friends of Williams Park, I heard about some of these promises and recently remembered them when I read an article in the Tampa Bay Times about how local sign laws are threatening PSTA bus shelter funding.

Bus shelter ads create visual clutter, critics say. They sometimes contain questionable images. And come May 2013, they’ll be gone, at least in this city. Dunedin commissioners have banned ads on bus shelters.

That’s probably not what the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board expected when, hoping to preserve a longtime advertising contract with Clear Channel, it asked Pinellas city leaders to consider amending their sign codes to allow ads on the shelters.

Since 1995, Clear Channel has built and maintained bus shelters in exchange for advertising space, but only two Pinellas cities – Clearwater and Pinellas Park – allow the signs under current codes. (Clear Channel also has about a dozen shelters each in Largo and Dunedin that were grandfathered in when those cities later banned bus shelter ads.)

Clear Channel also paid PSTA $1,000 per shelter each year until January, when the PSTA board accepted Clear Channel’s request to instead pay the transit authority 35 percent of its gross advertising revenue.

Clear Channel is having difficulty selling ads because of the “lackluster” advertising market. With 62 shelters to date, the company also said local sign laws have blocked it from fulfilling a contract requirement to put up a minimum of 117 shelters around the county.

Dunedin’s decision worries PSTA, which stands to lose the contract and thousands of dollars in annual funding if other cities follow suit.

If only other local governments would follow Dunedin’s lead and not sell away the visual beauty of the community.

These shelters and their visual clutter are, like the depot at Williams Park, yet another way PSTA negatively impacts the community. PSTA does a yeoman’s job of ferrying thousands of our neighbors to and fro, but it does so at a cost.

That cost may dramatically increase if PSTA gets its way and is allowed to build 24 miles of light rail in the county.

The route would run from downtown St. Pete through the Carillon business district and up to downtown Clearwater. It would also connect with Tampa along the Howard Franklin Bridge. The early cost projections are about 1.5 billion dollars. PTSA’s manager for community relations, Bob Lasher, said a referendum to pay for the plan could land on a ballot as early as 2013.

Just what this county needs…for PSTA to transform a huge swath of our community into an extended version of what exists at Williams Park.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.