The beleaguered Pinellas County bus system is in need of a makeover. Along most routes, buses arrive once an hour. Riders can wait even longer to make connections. And it would not be an exaggeration to call the long trip from the south end of the county to the north a crossing.
This is what Pinellas County's bus system looks like: 43 routes, many of which haven't been rethought in more than two decades, and most of which have hour-long wait times. Even the system's supporters acknowledge the only people attracted to the buses are those with no other options.
But a future, imagined bus system presented to elected officials and transit leaders Monday looked vastly different. Gone were the hour-long waits and meandering routes marked by stops at every block. Instead, consultants hired by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority proposed a system of more frequent bus arrivals and trip times shortened by 15 to 30 percent.
The proposal comes out of a study the California-based firm Transportation Management & Design has been conducting of the county's bus system since last year. TMD's hypothetical system, which was designed with no spending constraints, is what the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would build if money were of no concern, said agency chief Brad Miller.
"This is a visioning document," he said. "It will likely have to be scaled back or revised over time given the revenues."
The consultants imagined a system that would replace transit hubs like Williams Park and Grand Central, where riders sit and wait for buses, with a grid design. As in major cities like New York and Los Angeles, buses would pick up and drop off riders at street-side stations. At peak times, buses on major routes would arrive at 10-minute intervals. The longest wait would be 30 minutes.
"These are exactly the kind of improvements that are going to transform bus service in Pinellas," said Marie Lewis, a senior manager for TMD.
"There's a large market of people who will take transit if it's frequent enough for them not to need to plan their trip," she added.
It is a lofty concept, but not dramatically out of the realm of possibility if Pinellas voters approve a one-cent sales tax increase in November 2014.
TMD's system would cost about $130 million a year, Miller estimated. With dramatically increased revenues from the transit tax, Miller said his agency could have up to $110 million to spend on buses.
Currently, the county spends $60 million on its bus system.
TMD's plan relies on a tiered system in which arrival frequency is highest for a set number of popular routes and diminishes along less traveled ones.
Lewis proposed the county install bus rapid transit systems (BRT) — fast-moving buses that make few stops and sometimes have their own lanes — on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, U.S. 19 and Ulmerton Road. Express buses, which are slower than BRT, would run on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, East Bay Drive, and Tyrone Boulevard.
From there, riders could transfer to a secondary network of buses with arrival times spaced out every 15 minutes.
The consultant's plan also includes a boost to weekend service, as well as extended hours, with some routes running until midnight Monday to Saturday. And in place of the two current routes that only take riders to Tampa on weekdays, TMD proposes three Westshore-bound lines running seven days a week.
"It's exciting to see this change, but I think there's going to be some pain involved," said Julie Bujalski, a Dunedin city commissioner. For years, she said, PSTA's board has caved whenever people banded together and demanded more stops, resulting in slow, plodding bus routes. That would have to end, she said.
Several members of the Advisory Committee for Pinellas Transportation also voiced concern that by not proposing BRT service for McMullen-Booth Road, the plan could anger north county residents. The bulk of the bus service increases are pitched at the southern and middle parts of the county, where population density is higher and there's more demand for bus service.
People driving along McMullen-Booth are mainly white-collar workers headed to Tampa, Miller said, many of whom have no desire to take the bus. But after several other board members piled on, the consultants agreed to reconsider the route.