Pinellas transit officials want to brand improvements before asking residents to pay for them listen09/11/12 Janelle Irwin
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Pinellas County is slowly moving forward with plans to ask voters to pay for a major transit overhaul. A study released this year lays the groundwork for both light rail and increased bus service to support it. At a transit meeting yesterday, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller said the ideas need to be discussed with possible riders.
“To help us digest all of these plans that are going on whether they’re long term or short term or about bus or rail or land use and put that together in a brand or message to help folks understand that it’s all one conversation about what kind of transportation we want for Pinellas County.”
The so-called Locally Preferred Alternatives Analysis puts a light rail line connecting downtown St. Petersburg to the mid-Pinellas Carillon area and all the way up to Clearwater. There are also long-term plans to connect the rail to Tampa via the Howard Franklin Bridge. That study was released in January and it’s expected to cost $1.5 billion. Pinellas would need to pass a penny sales tax to cover the cost through 2030. Preliminary estimates had the measure on ballots as early as 2013. Scott Pringle, project manager for the analysis, said that time frame may take longer than expected.
“The thing is, is that we’re still really at the beginning of the starting blocks here. The gun just went off. We’ve still got years of planning and engineering and design to go. We’ll continue to have that conversation leading to any future conversations about how this gets paid for.”
Part of the reason for the delay is that officials in Pinellas don’t want to see a repeat of what happened in Hillsborough where voters rejected a transit referendum. Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch sits on Pinellas County’s transit board. He said there were a lot of oversights that made the initiative fail across the Bay.
“I think not having a completed map, a completed plan - where this would go.”
But with due diligence, Welch doesn’t foresee failure on the Pinellas initiative.
“We’ve got a track record of success with the Penny for Pinellas by showing folks, here are the projects you’ll get - a park, a police station, a bridge. We need to do the same thing with this penny sales tax for transit showing where their improvements will be and a time table. I think when you do that in Pinellas County, we’ve got a history of folks supporting those investments.”
So the county is using the Orlando market as a model where SunRail is already under construction. Once completed there will be more than 60 miles of commuter rail running from DeLand to Poinciana near Kissimmee. Pinellas’s plan incorporates light rail which typically uses electrically powered rail cars instead of diesel and spans a shorter distance than commuter rail. Also unlike the Pinellas plan, Orlando and the partnering localities didn’t have to ask voters to approve a tax. Instead, each government body found the money in their existing budgets to fund the rail. Without that option, Harry Barley, executive director of the Orlando Metropolitan Planning Organization said Pinellas should use their limitations as a bargaining tool.
“I’m not an expert on Pinellas County, but I think you’re probably running out of land also for wider roads, new roads. I’ve seen some of the investments that are being made on [U.S. Hwy] 19 and there’s only so much you can do on places like 19 which forces you to look at better ways of doing it.”
“They had a three-county area plus the city of Orlando who all, it was a unanimous vote to move forward with this. We need to try to move towards that kind of regional approach for Tampa Bay, but looking at Pinellas County specifically, I think we’ve achieved a lot of that just by achieving this AA [Alternatives Analysis] and having all the cities on board as well as FDOT and TBARTA and the MPO and PSTA. So, I’m real positive about where we are right now.”
But not everyone is on board. All over Pinellas, especially in areas where rail stations are proposed, there are anti-rail signs. They say “no tax for tracks” and Pinellas transit CEO Brad Miller said it’s important to make sure those who are less informed, get informed.
“There are those who are specifically against further investment, but the polls that we have done show that a well thought out transportation investment in our county is what is needed to move Pinellas forward.”
Pinellas’s proposed transit overhaul doesn’t just emphasize light rail. Miller said integrating rail with improved bus service is key because the transit authority needs to be able to get people to and from the train stations.
“The bus system improvements could be implemented almost on day one. The light rail, if it were to be approved, would take several more years to bring it online, but the bus improvements could be brought on much quicker and that’s why we’re doing a study of all the - how a bus system can compliment a fixed guide way system in Pinellas County.”
The PSTA board meets again on December 10th to take yet another baby step in their long and meticulous plan to improve transit in Pinellas County.