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Monday, Apr 24, 2017

Grant paves way for rapid bus serving downtown St. Pete

— Pinellas County transit officials are $500,000 closer to building a rapid bus line between downtown and the beaches to spur the economy and help tourism.

A grant from the Florida Department of Transportation, announced during a news conference Monday, will be used to complete the design study necessary to apply for government money to build the bus route, said Brad Miller, CEO of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

“We would like to invite you to a ribbon cutting – in a couple of years,” Miller told the 50 or so people who gathered for a news conference on an empty lot at Central Avenue and 22nd Street.

Miller said the agency hopes to have state and federal government construction money in 18 months, and to have the $16.5 million bus line up and running by 2019.

“This has been a long time in coming,” he said. “Finally, we’re celebrating getting this off the ground and making this happen.”

A dozen public officials attended the event, many extolling the economic and transportation benefits the Bus Rapid Transit line will bring to the 10-14 mile corridor. The route will loop from downtown St. Petersburg to the beaches, straddling Central Avenue on streets to the north and south.

New 60-foot buses will run on the limited-stop route. Travel time is expected to be cut by one-third, Miller said. Plans are to sell tickets at pay stations or on smart phones rather than on the bus to increase the speed and efficiency, he said.

Ultimately, he said, rapid transit routes are planned to connect to the Gateway area and across to Westshore in Tampa, and from Clearwater Beach to Tampa International Airport.

City Councilwoman Darden Rice said there are 25,000 jobs within a half-mile of the Central Avenue corridor on either side, and about 50,000 residents.

“It’s all about helping people move around,” she said.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who helped secured the DOT grant money, said alternative transportation projects such as this are gaining popularity among Tallahassee lawmakers .

“People are excited about these types of projects,” he said.

“This one really is about connecting the two ends of Pinellas County, east and west,” he said. “It is vital we support this project.”

Brandes has been a proponent of alternative transportation modes, including ride-sharing services such as Uber, and said evolving technology is reshaping the ways people travel, with driverless vehicles and on-demand service not too far in the future.

The bus rapid transit line also will help the efforts by the city and PSTA to decentralize the bus system in the downtown area. PSTA is moving some bus stops from its congested hub at Williams Park and dispersing them along parallel downtown streets.

Mayor Rick Kriseman said the rapid bus route is another step toward reducing reliance on cars and making the city more walkable. “This is really about pursuing our future,” he said.

David Downing, executive director the Visit St. Pete/Clearwater tourism agency, said better transportation helps with tourism. International travelers, who make up 25 percent of the county’s 15 million annual visitors, and young adults “expect high quality, low cost public transportation,” he said.

Chris Steinocher, CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said business leaders are looking for the same thing when they consider relocating. The chamber has made transportation improvements a major priority, he said.

“We know this is about economic development,” he said.

sgirardi@tampatrib.com

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