St. Pete City Council voiced its unanimous support for changes to bus routes in downtown that would eliminate the current hub of bus stops cluttering Williams Park.
A new proposed route system is planned to kickoff on Valentine’s Day that would instead create a grid system spreading bus stops out throughout downtown rather than having them all pour in to one spot.
Williams Park has served as a transit hub for more than 50 years. Officials have been trying to change that since 1977, according to the city’s director of transportation, Evan Mory. That’s the year the city determined buses should no longer wrap around the park.
In 1984 the city’s bus system merged with the county. Two years later a route dispersal plan was evaluated and then in 1988 a plan was approved to move forward with shifting the system. By 1991 a plan still had not been enacted and the goal was kicked down the road another three years.
Here it is in 2015 and the ball is only just now reaching the pins.
“Today is a historic day,” said Brad Miller, CEO of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. “Although this has been an idea for decades, it seems like perhaps a no-brainer … it has been a lot of work.”
The agency is redirecting 16 routes to come in and out of downtown St. Pete at various stops all over the corridor and not just one hub in the middle.
In many cases, that will help riders hop a ride that drops them off closer to destinations.
And it’s aimed at cleaning up the long crime-ridden Williams Park.
In planning for the changes, PSTA held seven public outreach meetings. The goal was to educate voters on what the new system would look like, provide opportunities to learn how the changes will affect their transit needs and collect information about what regular bus riders think is best moving forward.
Miller said there were some take-aways from the meetings. For example, riders explained that a changed route culminating near the Saturday Morning Market in the Rowdie’s stadium parking lot was no where near as beneficial as a route that ran a few blocks North and dropped riders off at Publix.
The minor tweak means riders can access Publix more directly six days a week rather than benefit a small majority of riders just once a week.
But not everyone is happy about the changes. Two homeless advocates urged City Council to put off a vote on the plan. They argued more public engagement is needed.
Mary Cash with the homeless advocacy group Celebrate Outreach complained the entire PSTA system needs to be revamped before changes are considered to Williams Park.
She said the Central Avenue Trolleys leaving the main transit hub on Central Avenue often have to turn against traffic to get into the bus stop.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost been in a head-on collision,” Cash, who serves as a board member of the group said.
Reggie Craig, another Celebrate Outreach board member, offered another argument — the city is trying to disperse the homeless population in favor of people with better resources. More bluntly put, they’re trying to hide the homeless from downtown to boost the area’s image.
“It seeks to move homeless out of sight,” Craig said.
Instead he said the city should be focusing on finding affordable housing solutions for the homeless. That’s something the city is doing. Mayor Rick Kriseman just this week asked the Florida Legislature to include funding for affordable housing in St. Pete in its next budget and the city has allocated $800,000 in its own budget to find solutions.
And affordable housing has little to do with PSTA. The city is not funding the change at Williams Park. The project is also cost neutral for the transit agency.
“It’s taking the transfers that exist today and moving them to different parts of the city,” Miller said.
He hopes the change from a transit hub system to a grid system in St. Pete will serve as a model for the rest of the county that may later lead to more improvements.
PSTA is tasked with finding ways to continue making bus improvements despite a tight budget. Just a little over a year ago the agency was looking forward to sweeping improvements to not just the bus system but also by implementing bus rapid transit and passenger rail.
When the funding mechanism for that, Greenlight Pinellas, failed, it left the agency grappling with how to remain solvent with only what it had let alone finding ways to improve without an expanded budget.
The Williams Park changes are one way the agency can make that happen.
Following the presentation at City Hall, council members Darden Rice and Wengay Newton, Mayor Kriseman and Miller met on the steps of City Hall to express support of the project.
“My thanks to Brad Miller and the entire PSTA Board for everything you all have done to bring this grid system here to us in St. Petersburg,” Kriseman said. “[It’s] a 40-year-plus plan that’s now finally seeing the sunshine of day. This plan truly is transformational.”
The PSTA board, of which Rice will chair next year, is set to vote on its support for the plan in December. Changes are scheduled to take effect on February 14 with shelters at Williams Park coming down at the end of January.