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Pinellas County light rail efforts will require cooperation

Pinellas County residents may think that all this talk about bringing light rail to the county is just pie-in-the-sky and will never happen, but Pinellas local governments are preparing to rewrite their land development rules to account for the arrival of sleek rail cars and rapid buses.

Get used to the acronym TOD, because you will hear it a lot in 2010. It stands for Transit-Oriented Development or Transit-Oriented Design, which is an approach to developing land that centers on rail rather than the automobile.

That's a revolutionary idea in Pinellas, where development patterns were determined by the automobile. Since people had cars, homes and employment centers were built well away from original town centers, and roads were built to reach them. When the county grew and major roads got clogged, they were just widened and widened, until there was no room for more lanes.

Local government land development rules previously focused on isolating different land uses. Homes could be built here, offices there. Commercial businesses were stacked along major roads, because that's where the people were — in their cars.

Transit-Oriented Design reimagines development patterns, promoting land uses that allow people to live, work and shop in the same place along rail lines or the rapid bus routes that bring riders to the rail. TOD promotes especially dense development for a quarter- to a half-mile around each rail station, where you might find apartments alongside offices alongside stores. People can walk between home and job or to the rail station, then go anywhere they want. Those who don't live along the line get to it by using buses traveling on dedicated lanes or a network of bike and pedestrian trails leading to the stations.

The Urban Land Institute sums up this revolution this way: "Today, highways are out; urban transit systems are in."

In Pinellas, cities, the county and the Pinellas Planning Council are starting work on their comprehensive plans and land development regulations to allow high-density, mixed-use development around transit stations and to address some other issues associated with putting a light rail system in Pinellas. Among those issues:

• How would existing neighborhoods near transit stations be buffered from those new pools of high-density development?

• How and where do local governments need to allow for wider sidewalks, trails, bike lanes and bus rapid transit lanes?

• Much of the land alongside potential light rail corridors in Pinellas is designated for industrial use, and much of it is empty. Some say it should be redesignated to allow other kinds of employers such as offices or light manufacturing — employers whose employees would then ride the rails to work.

Pinellas officials also will be looking at ways to amend their codes to take advantage if a rail line comes through their communities, in the way Dunedin seized the opportunity of the Pinellas Trail to build a destination downtown. Largo is so interested in positioning itself well for rail that it hired as a consultant the same engineering firm working with the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, the agency leading the bay's push for rail.

Interestingly, the cities and county must start work on their rule changes without knowing where rail lines and stations would be located, since those decisions are a year or two away. Bob Clifford, TBARTA executive director, said the work must be done now because the Tampa Bay region is in competition with other parts of the country for startup money for rail. As regions submit their rail plans for approval, the Federal Transit Administration looks for proof that everything already is in place to promote a rail system that will be accessible and successful, Clifford said.

While each local government may have its own vision of rail, cities, the county and the Pinellas Planning Council clearly will need to work together so their plan changes have some consistency, since rail lines pass through multiple communities. The FTA won't be interested in parochial squabbles. They'll be looking, Clifford said, for proof that "we can make this happen."

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the Times.

Pinellas County light rail efforts will require cooperation 02/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 20, 2010 3:31am]
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