Q & A with St. Petersburg City Councilman Jim Kennedy on future of transportation in Pinellas

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It is easy — too easy — to forget Councilman Jim Kennedy’s importance within the fourth largest city in Florida, because Kennedy dives so deeply, so quickly, so effortlessly into the weeds of policy that you might mistake him for the city administrator, or even a cubicle-bound middle manager.
 
Too often with elected officials, the aura of grand importance, of statut d’élite, of political privilege (albeit bestowed by the people) precedes the discussion of the gritty policy issues that actually matter to the people. Not so with Kennedy. In less than two minutes he is informing you of his role as both the Chairman of the Pinellas Planning Council (PPC), and on the County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Kennedy has successfully leveraged his role on the PPC — an organization designed to address countywide land use issues — and on the MPO — the official County organization that guides local decision making on transportation issues — to become perhaps not just the leading political figure, but the leading elected policy voice on transportation in Pinellas County.
 
Kennedy clearly know this. It is reflected in his campaign website (he is seeking re-election this year; if re-elected, and if his term is completed, he will have served ten years on council), on the home page under a header that says “Why I’m Running”.
 
Couched as a “serious challenge,” transportation kicks off the second paragraph, which starts with the need to create “an adequate mass transportation system.” He notes that of the serious challenges he lists, “we need serious people to solve them.”
 
The third paragraph — the longest by far — is little more than a litany of his efforts towards improving transportation in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. It is also as holistic a view of everything that affects the world awkwardly packaged in the insufficient word “transportation” — EMS response times, PSTA work, the city’s Budget, Finance, and Tax Committee, and the city’s Investment Oversight Committee.
 
Even in later paragraphs, he alludes to what many hope for with more robust transportation: Building a strong community… moving our community forward…
 
This is the vision of a serious person working to tackle a serious issue.
 
“We’re not going to pave our way out of our transportation difficulties,” says Kennedy when asked if he views transportation as an intractable regional problem to solve, or something else.
 
Kennedy points out that it is our unique demographic situation that frames transportation in the area. “We are different than New York and D.C. Because of our demographics, this is really about rapid transit bus lines, with a light rail component. It is about the density around St. Petersburg and Clearwater.”
 
This leads to a discussion of transportation as a regional issue. “Other municipal leaders have been helpful,” he says.
 
Kennedy seems to bristle at the idea of making transportation political.  When asked if the voices speaking out against light rail in the area were primarily Tea Party anti-tax groups, or simply people who needed to know more, he demurs: “There are elements of both Tea Party anti-tax extremism, and a simple need to educate in the arguments against progress on transportation. But we need to change the perception that roads are free. Roads are expensive too, so this needs to be a comparison.”
 
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Here are five questions for Kennedy:
 
The voices against things like light rail and progressive transportation solutions seem louder here than in other places. Is that a collection of organized anti-tax voices, or is it simply a lack of education?  
 
Kennedy: Well, I think there are a variety of reasons why some people who are in the minority in this community are opposed to trying to solve our transportation issues. Most of these reasons are based on misinformation and I see one of my jobs as a leader on transportation is to help educate folks. If we are going to be successful here, it’s going to require that everyone is on the same page.
 
To be sure, some of the loudest voices opposed to transportation solutions are anti-tax folks. We need to overcome the notion that “roads are free.” They assuredly are not. Taxpayer dollars build them at enormous cost and then fund their continuing maintenance.  Offering progressive solutions to mass transportation can offset those costs.
That’s just one instance of where we need to make sure we do a good job educating the public.
 
2. Often when people hear “transportation” they think “trains” or a metro-kind of system, and that may not be the case. What do we mean when we talk about the 2 different systems?
 
Kennedy: The new transportation plans begins by making substantial overhauls to the underlying transit system. Essentially, Greenlight Pinellas puts into place a bus rapid transit system with a light rail component. About 75% of the new plan is for improving bus transportation.
 
The current system is not functional and is only used for people who do not have another transportation option. It uses a hub-and-spoke system, which is outmoded and inefficient. The new plan converts the bus system to a grid system, similar to other large metropolitan areas. For comparison, if you were to take the bus today from downtown St. Pete to downtown Clearwater it would take over 2 hours to get there. Under the new plan, that time is reduced to 53 minutes, about the same amount of time it takes to drive there in your car. Further, the grid system will substantially decrease the wait time if riders miss a bus as well as run later into the night. These changes will make bus transportation much more efficient and it will become a viable option for folks to use on a daily basis.
 
3. Some may not know about the taxing component being proposed here: can you characterize the change?
 
Kennedy: Sure. The new plan is funded entirely by a modest 1% increase in sales tax. The November 2014 referendum will be about whether we approve this sales tax increase to pay for improved transit. And of that, tourists will pay approximately 1/3 of the bill.
 
It is worth noting that if this referendum passes, our homeowners’ ad valorem property tax will decrease because that will no longer be the funding stream by which PSTA operates.
 
4. When you’re hearing the discussion happening about transportation, is it going in the right direction in St. Petersburg? In other places?
 
Kennedy: I think it’s getting there, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. People are starting to realize that we need to find forward-looking, economically sound ways to manage our growth. Adequate regional mass transportation is a big part of that. I have been encouraged by the Greenlight Pinellas public education campaign and impressed by the amount of civic engagement at this stage of the procession. But we need to continue talking about mass transportation as a value—why it’s good, why we need it, where we hope to be as a community in a generation because of it.
 
5. Can you talk about why land use may be a tough challenge going forward?
 
Kennedy: Candidly, I don’t think it will be much of a challenge. As Chair of the Pinellas Planning Council, I’ve worked to smooth out some of these issues and have led the process of consolidating the PPC and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which hopefully will be completed by the end of the year. We’re working to provide for more mixed-use development and long before the time we begin to implement light rail we will get it done.
 
But I think it’s important to note that we are not trying to change the character of places like North County. Instead we are trying to adapt the new transportation systems in a way that complements and enhances established land use.
 
# # # #
 
Discussion with Councilman Kennedy ends with apparent little ceremony.  Indeed, you may find yourself in the deep end of a conversation about improving east/west commuter traffic flow and evacuation routes between around Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street North and Gandy Boulevard (an area he represents on Council).  In particular, he finds himself agitated in explaining to you that an $83 million shovel-ready transportation project is on hold because of the inconvenient location of a 10-inch hot oil line.
 
And it is in this political entanglement where the real power of Council — his power may be best understood. He has already submitted a resolution before City Council seeking to “resolve the dispute between the Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Gas Transmission which is delaying design and production of the Gandy Boulevard limited access project.” He has also used his position in the Metropolitan Planning Organization to support the resolution and push the project through as well.  
 
Kennedy is visibly proud of the fact that this is $83 million not in new taxes, but that he has identified as unspent savings from other projects. And if the Florida Department of Transportation is not in motion by the end of September, the entire project may have to be re-bid, effectively drowning it in a sea of red tape.
 
Leaving you with that cliffhanger, he adds that he is also doing a lot of work on the San Martin bridge near Weedon Island.    
 
Then he offers a tour of his office, a building off 2nd Avenue North called the “Historic Caretaker’s Cottage,” a place in the shadow of downtown that reminds you that all of it used to be orange groves.  
 
Behind thick glass and a gilded frame sits a Scottish land use document.  It is beautiful, faded and bound, dark ink in a scripted language that can barely be read. It looks suspiciously like art.
 
Here, on one wall, is a picture of President Woodrow Wilson and a document with his signature. Here on another wall is one from President James Monroe, alongside another impressively parched document signed by him.
 
Here is a letter written by Senator Jacob Javits.  Here is a letter written by Bobby Kennedy.  
 
His office features an English piece so old that one feels compelled to stand stoically before it, whispering, as though you were in a museum. And in some respects, you are.  
 
And this is when you remember: you are not standing with the city administrator, a mid-level manager. You are standing in a place woven with history, yet where the occupant spends most of his time imagining the Tampa Bay area beyond his tenure or perhaps even his lifetime. You are standing with the City Councilman from District 2, Jim Kennedy.  And in the midst of history abounding, he has a plan for the future.