Friday, November 17, 2017

Darden Rice: Express bus route to beaches worth a compromise


Everyone knows that Pinellas County is home to incredible beaches, world-class entertainment, and unmatched quality of life.

Because of this, Pinellas has emerged one of the nation's top vacation destinations. This tourism boom is driving new business to local shops, restaurants and museums, and providing crucial revenue to city and regional government.

But as more people discover everything Pinellas has to offer, traffic congestion — and the pollution that comes with it — will only continue to grow. That's especially true for our coastal communities.

If we don't improve and innovate how we move people around, Pinellas will see increased traffic, decreased air quality and lowered expectations from the people who visit, live, and work here.

Fortunately, we are on the cusp of an exciting new opportunity: planning is under way for Pinellas County's first bus rapid transit line, providing expedited, limited-stop service along First Avenue N and First Avenue S between downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches.

While bus rapid transit, or BRT, will benefit riders, residents and businesses all along this corridor, the advantages are especially great for the beach community at the service's western end. Choosing the best beach location to anchor the BRT line from downtown St. Petersburg is vitally important. Turns out there is one choice beach location that ranks high above all others: St. Pete Beach.

This month, PSTA and the St. Pete Beach City Commission will vote on whether to determine if this beach terminus can be confirmed. After much study, St. Pete Beach scored the overall highest by far in all categories evaluated and rated for fit, speed, access, market and competitiveness. St. Pete Beach is the location with the highest density that will serve the most needs for residents, workers, tourists, people without cars and new riders. Unlike most lengthy transportation studies, the comparison of the three cities is easy to digest. The conclusions gel with common sense.

One of the wrinkles is that St. Pete Beach — and Treasure Island — are two of five cities, including Kenneth City, Belleair Beach and Belleair Shore, which are not ad valorem members of PSTA. That rankles some who think the beach cities, especially ones that would benefit from BRT services, should contribute like everyone else. That is not an unreasonable position and our elected officials are being fiscally responsible in raising this issue. However, let us not forget that PSTA's operations and capital budget also are supported by state and federal grants. St. Pete Beach residents and hotels certainly contribute in that way as well. And more fare revenue is projected to be created from St. Pete Beach residents and tourists who will use the bus service than any other beach destination.

I urge my fellow elected officials and PSTA board members to approach St. Pete Beach with a greater sense of cooperation. There is a great regional and economic value to provide a top-class bus rapid transit service, the first of its kind in Pinellas. We need to base the terminus locations on strategic considerations that will engender success. That will far outweigh what we might sacrifice by trying to squeeze every penny from a beach community already struggling to pay for myriad infrastructure needs.

While we should pursue any opportunities to look for contributions from the hotel industry or tourism revenues, ultimately, the greater gains the public will realize with a successful BRT service are greater than a sole focus on St. Pete Beach's ad valorem contributions to PSTA. The success of this, the first of what I hope becomes a countywide network of BRT projects, will set the tone for future much needed BRT projects in the works, so it is important that we do this right.

Working together is the Pinellas way. It's how we can build the first link in a future regional system of bus rapid transit that our visitors, workers and residents deserve. And it is how we can move forward toward a brand new chapter for Pinellas County's future.

Darden Rice is chairwoman of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and vice chairwoman of the St. Petersburg City Council.


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