Try this some day when you have a little extra time on your hands: Drive U.S. 19 from South St. Pete up to Tarpon Springs, as my family and I did for this month’s “Night in the Islands” event.
That kind of drive gives you a different perspective on the transportation issues Pinellas County faces. Thankfully, we didn’t encounter heavy traffic or construction tie-ups, and the drive took between 45 and 50 minutes. That, I suppose, passes for “good time” on 19, though that’s longer than it takes me to get to downtown Tampa from St. Petersburg. I’m sure people from Tarpon and Palm Harbor think the same thing when they drive to St. Petersburg for a Rays game or a festival at Vinoy Park.
The county’s transportation problems aren’t strictly a north-south divide, either. All it takes is one white-knuckled drive down Ulmerton Road, Park Boulevard or East Bay Drive at rush hour to convince you we have serious issues between the coast and the interstate, too.
Traffic congestion in Pinellas County certainly isn’t new. In fact, the tie-ups drivers routinely encounter on busy roads such as U.S. 19 and Ulmerton Road are a big part of what’s behind the penny sales tax referendum we’ll see on the November 2014 ballot. That money would replace the property tax that currently funds the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and would be used to expand bus routes throughout the county, build a 24-mile light rail system linking Clearwater and St. Petersburg (maybe Tampa, too, eventually), among other things.
PSTA officials have been explaining the plan and its likely impacts through an initiative called Greenlight Pinellas. Officially, that’s an education campaign, because government money can’t be used to tell you how to vote. The advocacy campaign will come later, paid for with private dollars, though that effort likely will be led by the same firm behind the Greenlight project.
Expect to hear a lot more about PSTA’s transit plan between now and next fall. Proponents say they plan to learn from the failed effort to win voter approval for light rail across the bay. With transportation planners estimating the light-rail system alone would cost between $1.5 billion and $1.7 billion to build, you can count on tough questions about the cost and long-term viability of the plan, especially considering many people here are still recovering from the recession.
Regardless of what happens next fall, though, it’s way past time for action, as my recent odyssey to Tarpon Springs reminded me. Because, quite simply, it’s just too difficult to get around here. It can be easy to forget that because many of us have been conditioned to a series of repetitive travel patterns designed, at least in part, to avoid the kinds of nightmare drives that make us never want to get behind the wheel ever again.
Of course, as our drives get smaller, so do our perspectives. Before you know it, hopping in the car and dashing off to places that once seemed so exciting becomes a chore. We trade Ybor City boliche and downtown Dunedin for soup and salad at the Olive Garden, and our worlds become smaller and less interesting.
Whether we get from Point A to Point Z in our cars, on a bus or a train, on a bicycle or on foot, we ought to resist that pull toward mediocrity. One of the best things about cities and metropolitan areas is the variety they offer — in work, food, entertainment, culture, people. But if we lose interest because getting there becomes too much of a hassle — well, you can get soup and salad anywhere.
I hope the ongoing debate about the future of transit in Pinellas County will be a real one, because we need to figure out what options will best serve the needs of the entire county, how our plans can fit into regional solutions and what we can afford. Before we have that debate, though, we need to understand what’s at stake: our continued evolution into a bona fide metropolitan area. We can’t expect to support a Major League Baseball team, continue to be a world-class tourist destination, attract high-tech jobs and nurture our cultural institutions without better transportation options.