Upgraded bus service — not just light rail — may be best to develop Pinellas mass transit

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Pinellas County will soon decide the future of mass transit; the Nov. 2014 referendum will have a proposed penny sales tax increase advocated by the PSTA and its support group Greenlight Pinellas.

Once again, light rail has become a crucial topic of conversation.

But are metro lines the only way to go? According to Matthew Yglesias in Slate magazine, upgrading bus service might be the best way to improve transit effectively.

Metro lines and subways may be ideal to move large groups of people in highly developed urban areas, but rail is becoming an increasingly expensive project to get off the ground. In many areas, it just doesn’t make sense.

The “humble” bus may offer the best strategy for municipalities to resolve future transportation problems.

When you examine the purpose of mass transit, it is not how they operate — on either tires or rails — but how effectively the service can get people where they want to go.

Buses have one main problem — speed. Compared to trains, buses are slow. The culprit is the regular stops in normal bus service. When entering, each passenger must pay a fare, instead of prepaying and showing proof of payment.  This method slows travel even further, leading to the eventual “downward spiral of service.”

Add to that the fact that most buses are stuck in the same traffic as cars and other vehicles.

Delays and poor service result in less usage and lower revenues, which lead to fewer routes and irregular schedules; it guarantees buses will be used only by the poor, and not replace cars anytime soon.

In the end, bus service will suffer political marginalization.

Light rail eliminates many of the drawbacks of bus service. Trains have dedicated tracks, a payment system that streamlines large numbers of riders entering at once, and have stations spaced far enough so trains do not have to stop every minute or so. 

It is possible to develop a bus system patterned after light rail. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has many of the benefits of metro services, but move on roads, not rails. In fact, BRT is the foundation of the improvements recommended by Greenlight Pinellas, scheduled for implementation if voters approve the 2014 penny-sales-tax referendum.

The least expensive way to accomplish BRT is to take some traffic lanes dedicated to automobiles and make them exclusive for high-speed buses (car drivers may not like it, at least at first). This type of bus service makes sense, with more frequent routes appealing to commuters and other users.

Upgraded bus systems are not a catchall answer for every city and town in the U.S., but it represents a step in the right direction for areas like Pinellas County that need affordable mass transit.

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.