Officials, stakeholders meet in St. Pete to talk transit

12/02/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Thursday morning in St. Petersburg, local community and business leaders met to discuss the future of mass transit in Pinellas County at the second of several Stakeholder Alternatives Analysis meetings. Stakeholders were asked for input regarding locations that would benefit the most from transit improvements.

Created in 2007, Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, or TBARTA, developed a master plan that included transportation improvements for 7 Bay Area counties. Now, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, along with TBARTA, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Florida Department of Transportation are looking to expand on that plan by creating the Pinellas County Alternatives Analysis. Executive Director of TBARTA, Bob Clifford explains the importance of meeting community transportation needs.

"We have to be able to address it both from a global big picture and how it all fits together but insuring at that local community and county level that we're meeting their needs and desires in terms of what we're providing for transportation."

Future plans for Pinellas transit are still uncertain, but it seems likely that much of the focus for transportation improvements will be placed on the high traffic areas around the bay. Clifford describes what areas seem to contain the highest traffic.

"What we're focusing on with this study is what we refer to as the 'spine', if you will. Which is that Clearwater, Gateway-St. Petersburg, and then across the Bay to Hillsborough County. But at the end of the day it's a whole system in getting people not just to Gateway or St. Petersburg, you've got to get them to the beaches, you've got to get them up to Tarpon Springs, and Dunedin, and all of those various places. So you look at it from a step by step perspective."

But some local business and community leaders believe that efforts in other locations are important as well. Anne Drake, a member of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, says she knows from her experience in Pinellas County that tourist-attracting beaches cannot be ignored.

"I think it needs to be integrated, you can not separate out our single biggest industry."

Other areas of concern are the congested routes in North County. McMullen Booth Road is among concerns for Floyd Egner of the Florida Department of Health.

"The McMullen Booth, Bayside Bridge corridor is one of the heaviest north-south corridors. It basically is the only alternative to 19, north-south, and it is heavily trafficked both morning and night and that's why I was surprised when they were doing their analysis that that didn't show as something bringing people down into Gateway, down into St. Pete."

According to Cassandra Ecker, a consultant for Jacob’s Engineering Group, studies have shown the Gateway area of St. Petersburg to be the largest attractor for work day commuters. Ecker hopes to focus first on the Gateway area and then to expand projects to other areas.

"You build a system for your biggest market and enhance the system for all of those other people."

The need for an improved mass transit system is being addressed by the alternatives analysis, but the cost associated with these improvements has not yet been determined. Clifford describes the uncertainty surrounding the proposed project.

"In Pinellas County what we're talking about here today is, you know, we've just begun what's referred to as the alternative analysis process for one area, one part of the overall plan. So we don't have any real costs at this point. We know with transportation it's fairly expensive. All transportation is fairly expensive whether we're talking about roads or buses or light rail or bridges, you name it. So we need to determine what it is, where it is, how do we do it, how much does it cost?"

According to Ecker, studies show federal contributions can be expected to cover around 40% of the costs. After the failed Tax Referendum in Tampa, Clifford says he’s not ignoring the potential for a repeat in Pinellas.

"I think you look at it from the perspective of the citizen is clearly telling us the economy is a huge issue to them, and it's something we need to take into consideration when we're talking about transportation."

Previous WMNf coverage of TBARTA

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