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Plans for expanded Pinellas bus network moving forward

ST. PETERSBURG - Buses that turn up every 10 minutes. Links to Tampa from downtown St. Petersburg, Clearwater and East Lake, and more buses on the weekend. That’s part of a recipe transit planners hope will entice more Pinellas County residents to leave their cars at home. The county’s future bus network could also include lanes dedicated solely for buses, better service to the beaches and a seasonal trolley service between Dunedin and Honeymoon Island. Leaders of Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority offered up a glimpse of the county’s long-term plan for a bus network at a meeting today. The plan, for which no costs have yet been estimated, would depend on voters approving a transit referendum next year that also would pay for a light rail network.
That extra penny of sales tax would boost funding for PSTA from roughly $60 million to $110 million per year. Even then, some parts of the bus plan might have to wait for additional funding. The proposal under discussion marks a major shift from PSTA’s current network where riders transfer at central hubs such as Grand Central Station in St. Petersburg. Instead, short wait times would mean riders could switch buses at regular street bus stops, some of which would be enhanced to provide seats and shade. Eliminating hub stops would mean faster ride times, said Marie Lewis, a senior manager with Transportation Management and Design, a consulting group hired by PSTA. “This is all about making transit a part of people’s daily life,” Lewis said. Under the plan, the busiest core network including Central Avenue, U.S. 19 and Fourth Street would have buses arriving every 10 minutes. That service would be supplemented by a frequent local network with buses running every 15 minutes. The longest wait time for a bus would be 30 minutes. Buses would leave park-and-ride lots in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and East Lake every 15 minutes, headed to a proposed transit hub in Tampa’s West Shore district. From there, riders could connect to Tampa International Airport, downtown Tampa or other destinations. Additions to PSTA’s trolley service could include a route between downtown Clearwater and Clearwater Beach. The bus network also would run longer hours, going from 5 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday and from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays. The plan comes at a crucial point in the development of transit in Pinellas. Despite cutting $40 million from its operating expenses since 2007, PSTA has seen ridership rise by 20 percent, and many bus routes are standing-room-only during peak hours. PSTA leaders have warned that, without additional funding, they will have to cut services by 2016. The agency is currently funded through a special property tax that brings in about $30 million. Other revenues come from grants and bus ticket revenue. Changes to the bus network could begin as soon as February 2014 with PSTA officials reducing service on unpopular routes and trying to redirect resources to busier ones. PSTA’s governing board is scheduled to vote on the bus plan Wednesday. Members of the Advisory Committee for Pinellas Transportation, a board composed of members of local transit agencies, approved the overall concept today, though there were concerns. Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch asked if residents in sparsely populated areas of the county would be left far from the nearest bus stop. “In summer, in Florida, how far are you asking that person to walk?” said Welch, who also sits on PSTA’s board. There also were concerns about why McMullen–Booth Road did not have any proposed bus routes and that the majority of the routes were in central Pinellas and St. Petersburg. Many current riders would find it difficult to adjust to new routes, said Julie Bujalski, a Dunedin commissioner who sits on the Metropolitan Planning Organization. “It’s exciting to see this, but I think there’s going to be some pain involved,” Bujalski said.

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