Would beachgoers park in downtown Clearwater and ride a bus to Clearwater Beach? • If it was a fancy-shmancy bus with its own express lane, would more people ride it?
Those are two of the key questions that need answers as a transportation task force begins a study of creating what's called Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, to shuttle visitors to Clearwater Beach. The goal is to reduce the number of cars on the island during peak tourist seasons, when traffic congestion is a bear.
However, here is another important issue that should have gotten more discussion before the task force invited consultants to bid on the study:
Does it make sense to install a new traffic light on Memorial Causeway — necessary to stop traffic so the express bus can cross traffic lanes — when millions of tax dollars were spent on building a roundabout and a high-level bridge to remove obstacles to the free flow of traffic?
Clearwater had long hoped to create a monorail line between downtown and the beach. The state's new Memorial Causeway Bridge even was designed with a wide concrete median that could be used for the monorail.
However, city and county officials now recognize that a monorail just isn't affordable — not in the current economic environment in which Florida governments find themselves — so the idea of Bus Rapid Transit has surfaced.
The city's initial idea is that people who wanted to go to the beach, but didn't want to sit in long lines of traffic or search for a parking space, would park their cars in an existing parking garage downtown or near the Pinellas County Courthouse. They would buy a ticket at a kiosk and board a low-slung bus with big windows. The bus would travel over the Memorial Causeway Bridge using the emergency lanes on either side of the traffic lanes. Somewhere just west of the bridge, a traffic light would be installed to briefly stop all causeway traffic so the bus could cross over to a new dedicated bus lane on the south side of the causeway.
How long and how often would traffic be stopped? How much would that delay add to the typical delays beachgoers experience going to or leaving the beach during tourist season and on holidays?
The main reason Clearwater built the beach roundabout was to eliminate a traffic light on the island that caused huge backups. While the roundabout has been controversial because of its design, many have conceded that it keeps traffic moving. The old Memorial Causeway drawbridge was torn down, and an expensive high-level bridge built to replace it, because the drawbridge openings and closings stopped traffic and worsened backups. The high-level bridge has fixed that problem.
Won't the advantages of those new facilities be blunted by the installation of a new traffic light?
BRT is not an experimental concept. BRT lines are being considered in Tampa and St. Petersburg, and they function well in major cities around the country.
But a big unknown is whether Pinellas residents and tourists would ride a bus, even an express bus, to Clearwater Beach. They didn't flock to a ferry line that was created a few years ago and quickly closed. And they didn't use, in sufficient numbers, the admittedly more rustic Jolley Trolley that used to shuttle between the mainland and the beach using regular traffic lanes. Would BRT be any different?
And why didn't they choose those methods of getting to the beach? Some officials seem to think it was because neither provided a speedy alternative to automobiles. However, others argue that Tampa Bay residents are just too wedded to their cars to use mass transit in significant numbers, or that it is too hard for beach-going families to load all their paraphernalia and children onto a bus.
The Pinellas Mobility Initiative, a countywide mass transit study group, has $460,000 of federal money to spend to get the answers. A truly objective examination of the positive and negative impacts and the financial risks is essential.