ST. PETE BEACH — A proposed rapid transit bus system (BRT) connecting the city to downtown St. Petersburg met an enthusiastic response from the City Commission on Tuesday.
The BRT, as described by Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority director Tim Garling, would provide enhanced service between two top destinations for workers, residents and tourists alike.
"This would be a very premium service that could benefit the community in many ways — (reduced) traffic and parking are just some of them," said Garling.
The project would cost $20-million to $25-million initially and then about $272,000 a year just to operate in St. Pete Beach.
It would be financed by a federal grant and 50 percent matching county funds, he said.
Operating costs would be borne by the local communities, such as St. Petersburg, which, as a PSTA member already pays for transit services through its property taxes.
Cities such as St. Pete Beach that are not members would be charged operating fees or could opt to join PSTA.
St. Pete Beach now pays about $400,000 a year for its share of the Beach Trolley service.
Joining PSTA would require voter approval.
The BRT service would connect downtown St. Petersburg to Corey Avenue in St. Pete Beach via First Avenue N and S and Pasadena Avenues, according to Garling.
Two regular bus routes currently connect Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg to either Corey Avenue in St. Pete Beach or Pasadena Hospital in South Pasadena. The buses run about every half-hour and follow a longer, more meandering route. It operates 12 hours a day and one of the bus routes does not operate on Sunday.
But the BRT would run every 15 minutes for 16 peak hours seven days a week. The proposed system would utilize "stylized ... premium buses" to differentiate them from the regular transit service. And, specially designed BRT stations would include security and other amenities to attract ridership.
"We feel public transit will play a very important role in the future, particularly for St. Pete Beach," Garling said. "As the price of gas goes up, we feel public transit is becoming more viable."
PSTA reported a record 11.7-million riders last year, a number that appears to have increased more than 8 percent so far this year.
"Our goal is to double our ridership in the next 10 years," Garling told the commission. "We want to provide choices for people who have cars and are looking for other transportation options. We feel this is the very best project and the one with the best chance of success."
Garling said he hopes to meet with city officials to devise the best type of service, determine costs, and then take the proposal back to the PSTA board and the county Metropolitan Planning Organization for authorization. He said he has already received positive response from federal officials. A grant application could be made in September, he said.
"This looks like a golden opportunity," said Mayor Michael Finnerty . "I agree this (St. Pete Beach) is the right place."
Commissioner Alan Halpern said a rapid transit system on the beach would be a "great thing," while Commissioner Linda Chaney said it would be a "perfect synergistic opportunity."
Commissioner Christopher Leonard said he is "receptive" to the concept, but concerned about the cost.
Finnerty suggested the commission could discuss the proposal further in the next month, possibly with members of the St. Petersburg City Council and representatives of the business community.