CLEARWATER — All 65 spaces in the parking lot at the bottom of Beachwalk were taken, so Hasa Cekic found a place for his SUV to idle and waited.
His wife and three kids hopped out to enjoy the sand and surf, while Cekic sipped an iced latte behind the wheel, his eyes peeled for some parked car's reverse lights to flash on.
It took 20 minutes for a spot to open up, but Cekic, who drove from New York for a family vacation, said driving to the beach and fighting for parking was still more convenient than taking the bus, Jolley Trolley or water taxi from the mainland.
"We took coolers and towels and everything so it would be very hard to use the bus," said Cekic.
The city of Clearwater is trying to change that.
In its latest effort to keep cars off the island and make bus travel more appealing, the city has partnered with Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to build the first transit center on Clearwater Beach by early next year. The structure will be built in a central location just east of the roundabout on the Memorial Causeway, and will have a shade canopy and space for three buses or trolleys.
"It makes a statement that the city is willing to take the gateway to the entryway roundabout and put in a facility that will stand out and let people know we have alternative methods to get to the beach," said traffic operations manager Paul Bertels.
The city will pay up to $250,000 of PSTA's $500,000 construction costs, maintain the landscape and install a queue jump, where bus drivers will be able to trigger a traffic light for oncoming traffic so the buses can clear the transit station.
The Jolley Trolley and Suncoast Beach Trolley routes already make about two dozen stops between the mainland and Clearwater Beach, but those stops mostly consist of benches and a colorful marker along the side of the road. The transit station would be the first full-fledged bus facility, Bertels said.
PSTA planning manager Heather Sobush said the transit station ties into the PSTA's long-term plans for decreasing congestion and improving transportation options in Tampa Bay.
It would also be the designated station for the proposed route between Clearwater Beach and Tampa International Airport, which PSTA is working to secure funding for this legislative session.
"It's looking forward to that longer-term plan and regional express services," Sobush said. "The location serves to drop people off before they get into the congestion."
The only City Council member to vote against the project was Bob Cundiff, who questioned why the city was investing more in bus transit instead of steering that money toward alternative forms. Cundiff said he wants the city to continue investigating aerial transportation options — but proposals from two companies who pitched aerial commuter systems between downtown Clearwater and Clearwater Beach last year have not moved beyond anything but talk.
City consultants who delivered a downtown revitalization plan in February were originally going to include input on St. Petersburg developer Darryl LeClair's proposed gondola cable cars and SkyTran advocate Tom Nocera's proposed magnetic levitation system but said neither company provided enough data for them to analyze.
"Philosophically, I'm for fewer buses than more, especially going out to the beach," Cundiff said. "I just don't see the sense of a bus coming from the airport with three people on it nonstop to the beach. To me, it's a bad idea."
Bertels said this project is meant to help wean visitors off their cars by making the bus transit experience more reliable. The goal, he said, is fewer cars on the beach.
"Cars are so convenient for people, whether its a day tripper or somebody who's a tourist from Kansas," he said. "They have their car, they have a security blanket. But the more convenient we can make it for them to catch that bus, the better."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.