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For $26-million, faster buses would travel between Largo and Tarpon Springs.
Published Aug. 2, 2007

You're stopped in traffic on U.S. 19 in mid Pinellas County.

A sleek, new bus pulls up next to you in the right-hand-turn lane, filled with passengers surfing the Web on their morning commute.

The light turns green, but not for you. You're left in a stopped car, watching the bus' tail lights drive away.

That's the vision for 2010, when Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority hopes to launch a Bus Rapid Transit service from Ulmerton Road in Largo to the northernmost tip of the county in Tarpon Springs.

Officials with the transit authority said they believe the proposed $26-million project will make bus travel a first choice for many commuters who travel the north-south artery each day.

"Once they see it's faster, that's a big deal in getting them out of their cars and into buses," said PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher.

The route would be the first of its kind in Pinellas. A proposed BRT service in St. Petersburg is still on the table, but has been delayed by funding issues and disagreements over possible routes.

The North Pinellas BRT would be quicker for two reasons. It will make fewer stops than regular routes, but it also will use technology to give buses favored status at traffic lights and in certain lanes, Lasher said.

To keep the buses moving, right-turn lanes will become through-lanes for rapid transit buses, but not cars. Advanced software and wireless technology will enable communication between the buses and traffic signals.

"It will figure out if a bus is on time or running late, and if it is running late, it will actually extend that (green) signal to let the bus go through," Jacobs said.

BRT customers would connect with their normal bus routes from four transfer points along the way.

The county has applied for a $21-million grant from the Research and Innovative Technology Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Grant recipients will be notified later this month.

"We don't know what our chances are. It meets all the criteria ... but there's only so much money to go around," said Pinellas traffic manager Ken Jacobs.

Two new terminals costing about $4.5-million will be funded by developers working on projects along U.S. 19. Lasher estimated that the PSTA will need to finance about $500,000 of the total project.

Passengers will be able to connect with Pasco County Public Transportation buses at the route's northern terminus, creating a regional transit option, said PSTA board chairman Deborah Kynes.

"It has some really extraordinary opportunities for many of the citizens of Pinellas and Pasco that use the bus services," Kynes said.


Life in fast lane

The Bus Rapid Transit service on U.S. 19 would extend from Ulmerton Road in Largo to a new bus station to be built at the site of the proposed Wal-Mart near the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs. From there, passengers would be able to connect with Pasco County Public Transportation buses.

By the numbers

$26-million: estimated cost of project.

18: maximum number of rapid-transit buses that will be used for the service.

$300,000-$525,000: estimated cost for each rapid-transit bus.

16: number of miles along the U.S. 19 BRT service route.