CLEARWATER — City and county leaders have set aside the dream of running a monorail from downtown to Clearwater Beach. It's too expensive.
Now they're starting to look at a scaled-down version of that concept. Instead of a 2-mile-long monorail line, they're envisioning sleek shuttle buses shooting across Clearwater Memorial Causeway, bypassing traffic in their own separate lane.
The technology is different, but the idea remains the same: Finding another way to get beachgoers to the sand, a way that doesn't involve inching through gridlock during tourist season.
In this scenario, visitors could park in a downtown garage, grab their beach bags, buy a ticket at a kiosk and catch a fast ride to the beach. Of course, skeptics have always questioned whether people would actually do that, even if it involves a monorail or a speedy bus.
"The idea is to get people over there in a more efficient way. They wouldn't be on a bus that would be in the same traffic lanes as cars," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. "The buses would use the emergency lanes on both sides of the existing bridge. On the west side of the bridge, a signal would stop traffic to allow the bus to cross over to a dedicated lane on the south side of the causeway."
Is that doable, and how much would it cost? Local leaders are poised to use a federal grant to answer those questions.
A train on wheels
The Pinellas Mobility Initiative, a countywide task force of government officials who are studying the area's mass transit needs, intends to use about $460,000 of federal money to study the feasibility of this idea. Consultants' bids to do the study are due in two weeks.
This kind of quicker bus service, known as bus rapid transit or BRT, has been called "rail on wheels." Its proponents say that if a bus doesn't have to mix with other traffic, it functions like a cheaper version of a train.
Metropolises such as Los Angeles and Boston as well as smaller cities such as Albany and Orlando have BRT systems. To further set them apart, these bus lines are typically branded with special names like the MAX or the LYNX.
BRT lines are planned for Tampa and possibly from downtown St. Petersburg to the beaches. Those buses would mix with regular traffic, but they'd run frequently, make limited stops and hold traffic signals to keep moving.
For a Clearwater Beach express bus to work, it would have to stay out of traffic as much as possible. One key would be a new signal just west of the Memorial Causeway bridge that would stop cars long enough to let the bus cross diagonally across the road and get to its own lane along the causeway's south side.
Some drivers might not like the idea of another traffic light on the causeway.
"From a technical standpoint, it's doable. But do you really want to do it?," said Paul Bertels, Clearwater's traffic operations manager.
The upcoming study, which is to be finished sometime next year, will seek to answer several questions:
What would it cost? Earlier this year, officials estimated that such a system might cost roughly $5-million to $6-million to set up, compared to a jaw-dropping $80-million for a beach monorail.
But they don't really know. "It's probably too early to say what the number would be," county planning director Brian Smith said. And officials would need to pledge local tax money to the project to compete for federal transit funds.
Where it would start and stop? For the downtown end, one option is to use the 500-space County Courthouse parking garage, which tends to be empty on weekends.
At the beach end, the bus might stop at the city's marina, but that has yet to be decided.
"Would the bus cross the bridge at the Mandalay Channel and then go onto the beach proper?" Hibbard said. "That's something the consultant has to look at."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.