Whether to run light rail in a ring around St. Petersburg's downtown, or to send it farther south, delivering workers to the hospitals' and the university's doorsteps, that is the question.
Or, rather, one of the questions.
It will be another year before voters decide whether to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase to fund light rail and expand bus service, but conversations already are taking place about what shape the route should take if residents agree to pay for it.
In St. Petersburg, early talks center on the route looping around the city's core, running east on First Avenue S until Second Street then heading west on First Avenue N until it ultimately joins the CSX corridor just after passing 14th Street. It's a tentative proposal that could be a boon for restaurants and shops on Central Avenue, but one that is also prompting some to ask whether it could do more for the hundreds of people commuting to work farther south.
"That's a discussion, whether to serve the current core or somehow more closely connect that growing major corridor further south," said Brad Miller, the chief executive of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
A recent poll commissioned by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and WUSF Public Media found that 56 percent of likely voters in St. Petersburg support the proposal, while 36 percent oppose it. But in interviews with survey respondents, few were familiar with its design, the details of which likely will not be agreed upon until after the referendum goes before voters.
Running between Clearwater and St. Petersburg, the current route — the result of a study by Jacobs Engineering — would have 16 stops. As proposed, it would enter St. Petersburg from Interstate 275, heading south along the interstate until 22nd Avenue N, when it would switch over to a CSX freight route and continue south, eventually turning east and circling the downtown.
Home to All Children's Hospital, Bayfront Health St. Petersburg and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, the collection of blocks south of the city's downtown is a growing employment center. A map created by the city's economic development division shows that the area between Fourth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. streets S, bordered roughly by Fifth and 10th avenues S, has almost as many employees per acre as the first six blocks of Central Avenue.
Running a passenger rail line to this area could stoke development and attract more jobs. Conversely, it could shift the focus away from St. Petersburg's downtown, which continues to grow.
"Maybe we want it close but not too close (to the hospitals)," said City Council member Jeff Danner, who leads the PSTA board.
"On one hand, you're thinking I want employees coming into the hospital district. But if you're a hospital administrator, do you want everyone else coming in, too?" he said. "Some businesses want a more secure, quiet environment."
"There have been people who've advocated for bringing the line closer to the hospital district," said Scott Nolin, executive director of facilities management for All Children's. But Nolin said he isn't among them.
"We're certainly open to looking at routes that come closer, but we're not necessarily pushing it in any one direction," he said.
USF St. Petersburg officials haven't taken a position on the route, said spokesman Tom Scherberger.
The proposed east-west route into the city already has a stable of fans, who say that it's a faster, less expensive option than running tracks in a larger loop to reach more of the city. Another little-discussed proposal would have the rail traveling down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S and looping up Eighth Street S, stopping somewhere in the hospital district. It's unclear if that route would offer any direct benefits to businesses closer to the bay. Visitors and residents may not want to walk that far.
In cities like New York, Danner said, telling someone that the subway station is two blocks away means that it's close. In St. Petersburg, some are envisioning a train that would drop them off in front of their offices.
"We kind of have to change that way of thinking that everyone will be served," he said, "because you can't pull it into 12 businesses downtown; it just won't function."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.