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Public bus link urged for East Lake, Gateway

(ran SE edition of LT)

The county's bus system ought to operate an express shuttle from East Lake to the Gateway area, a consultant told bus officials Wednesday.

The shuttle would be the first bus route operated by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to serve East Lake, the quickly growing residential area in the northeast corner of the county.

The proposed route, with three buses in the morning and evening, would average about 240 riders a day, said David Miller, a transit planner for Parsons Brinkerhoff Quade & Douglas, a Tampa consulting firm.

That would be about double the ridership on the average route, Miller said.

"The ridership is better than I would have expected," said Miller, who advised the bus system to try the idea for six months to see how it works.

Directors of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority were impressed enough with the figures in the consultant's two-page summary report to ask the PSTA staff to look into it.

"It's very promising," said County Commissioner Sallie Parks, a PSTA board member.

PSTA officials cautioned that the idea is at least several months away from becoming reality. Among other problems, road construction along the proposed route would slow service through the end of the year.

But such a shuttle could be a natural. It would link two of the county's growth stars _ East Lake, the expanding residential area, and the Gateway, a booming commercial complex generally around the intersection of Interstate 275 and Roosevelt Boulevard.

About 17,000 people live in East Lake. The summary report provided to the bus system included no specific numbers about the number of people living in East Lake who work in the Gateway area.

But it appears that companies like MCI, Home Shopping Network and Honeywell and the county government _ which all have big operations in the Gateway area _ employ a good number of people who live in East Lake, Miller said. In his report, Miller said he looked at the ZIP codes of employees at big companies in the Gateway area.

The consultants' full report will be presented next month to the county's transportation planning agency, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which paid for the report.

One question any bus proposal would have to address: Would residents of East Lake _ where new homes routinely sell for more than $200,000 _ abandon their cars to take the bus to work?

They would if the bus gets them to and from work in about the same time, giving them a chance to read the newspaper or do other things rather than driving, Miller said.

That means the service should be as direct as possible, running mostly along County Road 611, also known as East Lake Road and McMullen-Booth Road. There should be stops only at parking lots to pick up and drop off commuters and at places where the route crosses the routes of other PSTA buses, Miller said.

The consultants propose park-and-ride lots at East Lake High School; at the Publix at Brooker Creek Center at East Lake Road and Ridgemoor Boulevard; and at the Shoppes of Boot Ranch, at East Lake and Tampa roads.

The trouble with a straight-shot commuter route is that it wouldn't help residents who want to go other places, said Lloyd VanSchoyck, a board member of the Citizens Action League, a tax watchdog group.

VanSchoyck's group has pushed for bus service to the East Lake area for years, contending that its residents pay taxes to support the PSTA, like all Pinellas property owners, but don't receive services. He said it was encouraging to hear that some service might be extended.

But he said it would be more helpful to have routes taking residents to places like Clearwater Beach, Countryside Mall and to their doctors' offices.

"It would be helpful to a lot more people that way than something designed as a feeder for an industrial area," VanSchoyck said.