Pinellas Transit draws light rail plans; 2013 referendum possible

02/17/12 Janelle Irwin
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Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, or PSTA, has drawn plans to build 24 miles of light rail in Pinellas County with a connection to Tampa. At the Unitarian Universalist church in Clearwater last night, a spokesperson for Pinellas’s transit authority told Sierra Club members that the plan could significantly reduce congestion on roadways. The rail plan is called the locally preferred alternative. That’s because for nearly two years PSTA, in conjunction with other groups, has solicited ideas from stakeholders about what areas would benefit most from improved infrastructure. Carol is a member of the Unitarian Universalist church. She chose not to give her last name.

“I think we are going to lose a lot as far as being a healthy, happy, whole community by not moving forward and advancing in our transportation issues and a healthy environment and having a healthy environment in the future.”

The route would run from downtown St. Pete through the Carillon business district and up to downtown Clearwater. It would also connect with Tampa along the Howard Franklin Bridge. The early cost projections are about 1.5 billion dollars. PTSA’s manager for community relations, Bob Lasher, said a referendum to pay for the plan could land on a ballot as early as 2013.

“It’s a plan for the future. It’s going to be totally dependent on a restructure of PSTA funding and transit funding in the area. So, it’s possible within about a year and a half, two years, we might be going to get rid of our Ad Valorem tax, remove that and switch to a sales tax, a penny sales tax, which would also bring some money in from tourists. About a third of it would be paid by tourists. Right now, PSTA and the transit in Pinellas is all on the shoulders of property owners in Pinellas.”

In 2010 Hillsborough County residents failed a similar referendum for transit improvements. But Lasher said Pinellas isn’t likely to run up against the same problems.

“Hillsborough, there were a lot of differences between what happened here and what happened there. They weren’t even nearly as far along as we are already. They did not have their route. They did pick a mode, but they didn’t have a route. We’ve got 16 prospective stations picked out. We’re much farther along and by the time referendum roles along, we’re going to have much more detail than they had over there.”

Lasher told transit supporters from the Sierra Club that the Tampa Bay area is lagging far behind other metro areas of similar size in public transportation. His goal is to do more than just move people from one place to another. The rail plans also include a series of improved bus routes to connect communities to the 16 proposed rail stations. Sierra Club member Cathy Harrelson said she agreed that a light rail system with improved bus routes would reshape the way communities grow.

“I hope that the community embraces some of the changes that this will involve which is that some areas that currently are not highly developed will likely develop around these stations. So, I think there’s going to be some changes in the way our communities look. I don’t think of it as a negative, but I can see where there could be some concerns over that. People don’t like change.”

When Governor Rick Scott rejected funding for high-speed rail connecting Tampa to Orlando last year, he claimed there wouldn’t be enough ridership to sustain the operational costs. The Sierra Club’s regional representative, Phil Compton said increasing transit infrastructure would draw riders because they could enjoy carefree commutes.

“And where you can sit here, instead of hassling with traffic and becoming a nervous wreck on the way to work or the way home, can you turn on your computer and have wifi, read the paper and read a book, listen to music, relax, be productive and get there in rush hour maybe in a half an hour instead of an hour and a half? Yeah. We can have all that here and we can have cleaner air.”

The Sierra Club took an interest in this initiative because increasing transit choices would reduce the area’s dependence on gas guzzling cars. Compton said he supports other transit initiatives like bike and pedestrian paths, but light rail is a step in the right direction to taking control away from oil companies.

“Most of America, pollution comes from burning coal. Here in Tampa Bay, some of the utilities have done some things to clean up their act, but here we are all tied to our cars and trucks because we don’t have a choice. So, for us to move forward with these transportation options, it means giving us the kind of choice that Americans have everywhere else and that’s what we have to have in order to clean up the air.”

If a referendum is passed by voters, the project wouldn’t be completed until around 2035. Construction on the stretch of rail planned to connect Pinellas and Hillsborough counties could begin as early as 2023 when the Howard Franklin Bridge is scheduled to be rebuilt.

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