CLEARWATER — As the rain drizzled on Thursday morning, elected officials and regional transportation leaders stood on a grassy downtown parcel where they hope, one day, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority can build a $34 million transit center.
All that’s left to do is convince the federal government to approve a $25 million grant for the project that transit authority applied for in July.
To show the city, county and regional backing required for the funding, two dozen officials signed their names with a black sharpie on a “declaration of support” poster they intend to deliver straight to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
“The fine print of that document says ‘Secretary Pete, show us the money,’” said Brad Miller, CEO of the transit authority.
Miller called the transit center planned for the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Court Street the “most pressing transportation need in Pinellas County.” It would replace the 40-year-old bus station a few blocks away on Park Street, which is one of the busiest hubs in Tampa Bay with 2,300 riders each weekday.
The roof on the “functionally obsolete” station is too small to fit the transit authority’s new electric buses, so bus operators have to pick up and drop off passengers on streets around the terminal. It can’t even accommodate all of the trolleys and buses used for the 14 routes, Miller said.
The new facility is described as “multimodal,” with plans that call for 16 bus bays, bicycle and scooter storage, ride sharing connections, and a green design with solar panels and electric bus charging stations.
David Gwynn, the secretary for Florida Department of Transportation’s district seven, emphasized the regional importance of the project, underscored by the state’s commitment to provide $2.3 million in funding. After the state and federal portions, the remaining $6.7 million cost for the project would be covered by contributions from the city of Clearwater, Forward Pinellas and the transit authority.
City Council member David Albritton, the city’s representative on the transit authority, said there are also plans for a direct connection to Tampa International Airport, creating an easier way for travelers to visit downtown and Clearwater Beach.
To the south of the site is State Road 60, one of the busiest corridors in Pinellas County. The Pinellas Trail for pedestrians and bicyclists is also nearby. And adjacent are CSX Corp. railroad tracks. As officials set their eyes on turning CSX Corp. railroad tracks throughout Tampa Bay into passenger rail service, the multimodal facility would also have the capacity to accommodate light rail.
“At a time when multimodal is so important, this will be a game changer for the economy of our downtown and our region,” Allbritton said.
Harry Glenn, a lobbyist for Clearwater and Pinellas County, said he expects to know by November whether the federal government will award the transit authority with the $25 million in Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity funding. The program, known as RAISE, is the Biden administration’s version of a federal effort started more than a decade ago to improve the nation’s infrastructure.
But the determination will have implications on another priority in Clearwater. The city needs the transit authority to vacate its Park Street terminal site because that is where officials hope to build a parking garage and new City Hall.
In June, the City Council began the process to swap the vacant lot it owns at the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Court Street for the transit authority’s Park Street site. The Court Street land is valued at $3.6 million compared to the $1.8 million Park Street lot, but city officials have agreed to donate the $1.8 million difference in land value to help fund the transit station.
The city bought its property at Myrtle Avenue and Court Street in 2006 from the Tampa Bay Times, then called the St. Petersburg Times, knowing “that some day this would be a multimodal site,” Mayor Frank Hibbard said.
“Many people say that government doesn’t look into the future,” Hibbard said. “That is not the case with this piece of property.”