St. Pete to get Bus Rapid Transit

The time it takes to get from downtown St. Pete to the beach could be cut nearly in half in a few years' time, officials said Monday.

Nope, rail isn't back on the table, but faster buses along a key corridor appear to be.

The Florida Department of Transportation is giving Pinellas County Suncoast Transit Authority $500,000 to develop a plan for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line that would run from the eastern edge of Central (along First avenues north and south) to one of three potential terminus sites on either St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island or Madeira Beach.

"Busing is going to look very different 10 years from now, and we are excited to play a significant role in that change," said State Senator Jeff Brandes, who heads the transportation committee that secures state funding for such projects. "We look forward to the jobs that this is going to bring to this community, to the growth this is going to bring to this community, and the connective abilities of Bus Rapid Transit for the beaches and downtown."

Getting out to the beach takes more than an hour now; BRT would bring that down to 40 minutes.

The excitement Monday had tinges of regret. It was barely a year ago that voters in Pinellas shot down a proposal to expand transit through a slightly increased sales tax.

BRT is able to move much more quickly along the corridors in which it operates than standard buses because of dedicated lanes and timed streetlights. There has been a functioning BRT line in Hillsborough for years. It began to run along Nebraska Avenue in the wake of a similarly failed tax referendum there.

Advocates said having the line up and running will help illustrate what a positive asset public transit can be, perhaps improving the climate for another referendum.

It's also another step toward transforming St. Pete into a place where it's easy to live without a car.

"Today, this is really about pursuing our future and it's about putting those promises that we've been talking about into action," Kriseman said. "So today, with BRT, we begin our journey to becoming a more walkable city that is not based on cars anymore."

Tourism and economic development officials touted upgraded transit as an economic driver — it gets visitors around the region with ease, hypothetically, and hospitality workers to their jobs.

"You're probably wondering what the tourism guy is doing here," said Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CEO David Downing said. "This comes right down to jobs."

It could even attract more development, said St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Steinocher.

"We know this is about economic development. Transportation does encourage development. Developers around the country are looking for places to invest their resources, and one of the first things they really do look for is… where is my best rate of return going to be?" In making such decisions, they look for areas that have an effective transportation system. “That's documented," he said. “That's proven."

Officials said the route should be up and running in about two years. As for construction funding, it's somewhat unclear where it will come from. PSTA CEO Brad Miller said there are state and federal grant dollars available that transit officials "feel pretty good about."

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