Friday, June 22, 2018
Opinion

Steinle: Greenlight Pinellas plan would help us get there from here

When my son enrolled at St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus but didn't yet own a car, I didn't expect him to have any trouble getting to class. There was a Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus stop on Belcher Road a half-mile from our front door. He could walk to the bus stop and take the bus 2 more miles to the campus.

Or that's what I thought. But a little research on PSTA's website showed us that the bus on Belcher Road didn't go to the campus. It turned and went to downtown Clearwater.

The only way to get from our home in east Clearwater to SPC, which is also in east Clearwater, was to take that bus west 3.5 miles to the downtown bus terminal, change to a different bus and then travel back east to SPC. I was dismayed that it wasn't easier for college students in Clearwater to get to their local college by bus.

My son ended up going with a far more expensive option: He bought a car.

That was about six years ago. Maybe things have changed. But I was reminded of our personal experience when I read the recent comment by state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg that he opposes increasing the sales tax by one penny in Pinellas to pay for "19th century transportation options."

What PSTA is proposing to do if Pinellas County voters approve a 1 percent increase in the sales tax in November doesn't sound 19th century to me. It sounds like "It's about time."

More buses — a 65 percent increase in bus service countywide. More routes better planned so that they take people closer to where they need to go. Faster pickups on major routes and bus service later into the night. And good golly, a light rail line that would run from St. Petersburg to Clearwater, bypassing some of the county's most clogged roads.

PSTA, the county's public transit agency now funded with a countywide property tax, has faced a slew of obstacles in trying to drag Pinellas into the era of modern transit — not the least of which is how to pay for it. Pinellas residents love to complain about traffic but don't necessarily like to shell out more tax dollars to fix the problem. So PSTA agreed to give up the property tax it levies now and replace it with a sales tax that would be paid by locals and everyone visiting the county who buys taxable goods.

That's a point that advocates of the PSTA initiative have hammered in dozens of meetings with residents and organizations: Part of the burden of funding the proposed improvements would be borne by people who don't even live here.

Another obstacle PSTA officials face: How to convince residents of the northern half of Pinellas that there is any reason for them to vote "yes" on the tax.

It is true that there has been less PSTA service provided to North Pinellas than to some other parts of the county in the past. But that doesn't mean it isn't needed. Ask anyone who sits daily in rush-hour traffic on U.S. 19 or East Lake Road or Alt. U.S. 19 or Tampa Road or Curlew Road whether everything up there is hunky-dory when it comes to traffic. Better cover your ears for the response.

Greenlight Pinellas, the name given to the proposed 30-year plan to improve mass transit throughout the county, promises a doubling of the bus service currently provided in North Pinellas. It would bring bus rapid transit service to major corridors, more minibuses to circulate through neighborhoods off main bus routes, park and ride lots, and a rapid bus route to Tampa International Airport. And just as in the rest of the county, buses would pick up passengers more frequently at bus stops and do so later into the night to serve shift workers and late diners and shoppers.

Perhaps PSTA's thorniest problem of all has been explaining why Pinellas needs more buses when everyone sharing the roads with them now can see that they often aren't full.

I can provide an answer for that one: There is no incentive to ride a bus if it won't conveniently take you where you need to go and do so in a timely manner.

Tampa Bay is said to be the largest metro area in the country without a robust, easy-to-ride mass transit system. And we get further behind with every passing year. Greenlight Pinellas is the most visionary effort made so far to start moving Pinellas County transit into the 21st century.

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