Pinellas transit officials are looking into shifting bus stops away from downtown St. Pete’s Williams Park onto various other stops across the area.
Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller explained the plan during a City Council meeting Thursday morning.
The idea is to change the some two-decade-old system Miller describes as “hub and spoke” into a more grid-oriented system.
As it currently stands, most of PSTA’s east/west routes — nearly 20 — come in and out of Williams Park via First Avenues North and South. As buses enter stops at the park, they drop off and pick up passengers and then circle around and head back out on First Avenue North.
The result is a nearly constant veil of buses surrounding the park. The system has created a hub for not just bus riders, but also for homeless individuals and drug peddlers.
“No longer will there be the visual aspect of buses staged in one location,” Miller said.
Over the next several months PSTA will embark on a series of seven public outreach sessions. Miller expects the changes to roll out on Valentine’s Day. After a short rollout period Miller said the agency will begin considering where bus shelters might be needed at new stops.
The agency also plans to remove the shelters from Williams Park once the changes are made.
There are some concerns about the homeless who dominate Williams Park. Homeless advocates worry the move is just shifting them away. City Councilmember Darden Rice said that’s not the case.
“One of the reasons why people avoid Williams Park are the concerns and perceptions that the park is not a safe place,” Rice said.
While it would be difficult to make the argument that dozens of transient individuals roaming the park isn’t the problem, it is clear that it’s not the biggest problem.
As Rice explained, because buses are constantly coming and going, it’s difficult for police officers to identify who is waiting for a bus, who’s just enjoying the park or who’s there to buy or sell drugs. The St. Pete Police Department has long complained about rampant drug sales in Williams Park.
To negate the potential push-back from homeless advocacy groups, City Councilmember Amy Foster suggested engaging those groups during the public outreach sessions. And Council Chair Charlie Gerdes offered to let PSTA use city communication tools, like flyers in utility bills, to get the word out.
The project is expected to be cost neutral, with the only potential for investment in future shelters at new stops in downtown.
Miller said he expects the changes to encourage more ridership into downtown as a destination for both visitors and workers. Under the current model, many people who work in downtown may avoid taking the bus because they would have to walk from Williams Park to their destination. The grid model gives riders the ability to hop on a bus that would likely get them closer to their destination.