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Plans likely to change face of Williams Park // Compromise reached to alter bus schedules

Williams Park would cease to be a bustling hub for downtown bus traffic by Oct. 1, under a compromise proposal that all sides say is wanting. The City Council on Thursday called it a "Band-Aid" solution that does not go far enough to reduce traffic congestion and noise around the park. Larry Newman, executive director of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), said the plan could inconvenience many of the riders his agency serves.

Of the 5,000 bus boardings that take place at Williams Park each day, more than 1,300 require transfers to a second bus line, Newman said. The new system would inconvenience many of those passengers, many of whom will face longer waits of up to an hour, he said.

"They're not going to be happy with the proposal," Newman said.

"Hopefully, they'll see this is the best compromise we could make on their behalf."

The city in September 1988 ordered the PSTA to dismantle its layover point at Williams Park, where many buses park as part of a scheduling system that enables riders to make connections with several lines.

The park serves 32 lines, making it the PSTA's largest hub.

The terminal has been at Williams Park since the early 1940s. But city officials, who are planning a multimillion-dollar revitalization of downtown, now say the buses make the park unappealing.

Mayor Robert Ulrich said Thursday that the terminal is "an aesthetic atrocity," and that City Council members, as "stewards of the aesthetics of our community," are bound to do something about it.

The city has proposed moving the terminal to the western section of downtown, but Newman said his agency cannot afford the estimated $4-million cost. He also said a new terminal would not serve riders, who use the Williams Park terminal because of its convenience to downtown's business core.

Under Newman's proposal, the PSTA would: Remove the special lanes that now send buses against the flow of traffic on Third and Fourth streets N. Devise a new schedule to allow buses from all 32 lines to pick up passengers at Williams Park but keep moving afterward, eliminating any layovers. Layovers, if necessary, would be conducted at other areas in the city.

Move shelters on the Third and Fourth street edges of the park to the other side of each street.

Study the possibility of moving the terminal's ticket booth and reducing the number of shelters in the park.

Newman said the new schedule would be in place after Oct. 1, followed by a six-month trial period to gauge how well riders adapt to the changes.

The schedule would be set after studies by the PSTA staff and several public hearings, he said.

The proposal still must be considered by the PSTA's board on Feb. 28.

City Council members said it was not exactly what they wanted. Some said they wanted the shelters moved much sooner, and that they would have preferred a new terminal in some other area of downtown.

"I don't think this is going to do the trick," council member Ron Mason said. "I think it's a Band-Aid."

Some passengers interviewed after Thursday's decision weren't happy, either.

"It would bother me greatly and everybody that sits here is going to say the same thing," said 88-year-old Margaret Rawlings, who has relied on the bus transportation in St. Petersburg since 1972. "Never had a car, never wanted one and down here I never needed one.

"They're changing our town and I hate that," she said. "It's doing fine right now and I don't understand why they don't leave well enough alone."

Vicki Casey 37, agreed. She said she relies on the bus to get to work daily "and I depend on this mode of transportation." She works at night as an answering service operator and said a change in the bus schedule "would affect me deeply."

Elizabeth Pancotto, 79, said changing the bus route would force her to change a 40-year-old habit. "I don't want this bus stop changed, I've been taking it since 1950 and it's a convenient spot for transfer all over town. I use it all the time. It's been ideal."

- Staff writer Norma Wagner contributed to this report.