ST. PETERSBURG — Dedicated rapid bus lanes connecting downtown and the beaches moved one step closer to reality on Friday when the Florida Department of Transportation approved a $9.5 million grant to help build a bus rapid transit system along First Avenues N and S.
The grant, plus an additional $1 million in design funds, mean the state is covering about 25 percent of the $41 million project. Local money from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and the cities of St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach are scheduled to cover another 25 percent.
So local and state sources have half the system covered. But in order for the 11-mile dedicated bus route to start operating in late 2020 or early 2021, the federal government has to come through with the other 50 percent of the cost, about $20 million.
This would be the first rapid bus transit system established in the Tampa Bay area.
The Pinellas bus agency submitted a grant application last year and the project in the pipeline for federal funding. If all goes as planned, the bus agency should receive those dollars by Oct. 1, 2019. Construction of the stations and purchase of buses is expected to take about a year.
Known as the Central Avenue BRT, the project would give buses their own lane for about seven miles. Once they hit the Corey Causeway, the transit system will run in mixed traffic through St. Pete Beach, down Gulf Boulevard and end near the Don Cesar St. Pete Beach hotel.
The rapid buses are projected to run every 15 minutes along the 11-mile route, making 17 stops along the way.
The combination of fewer stops and a bus-only lane could cut the bus trip to the beach by more than a third. The current average trip from 75th Avenue and Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach to downtown St. Petersburg is 50 minutes on the Central Avenue Trolley, according to the Pinellas transit authority.
The proposed rapid bus system, the agency said, would drop that same trip down to about 30 minutes.
Miller said the agency always expected to receive the grant, but the official announcement was still cause for celebration — especially in a region whose efforts to build any sort of dedicated lane transit option have failed time and again, either by lack of funding or voter support.
But in order to give the buses their own route, officials will have to convert one lane along First Avenues N and S into dedicated east-west transit lanes. That means those avenues would be reduced to two lanes for regular traffic.
The rapid bus lanes will be marked with a big red stripe, indicating that lane is only to be used by the express bus or by any cars and other vehicles that need to turn onto driveways, businesses and cross streets.