After three failed attempts to secure the funding, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority on Wednesday announced it received a $20 million federal grant to build a transit center in downtown Clearwater to solve what CEO Brad Miller has called “the most pressing transportation need in Pinellas County.”
In a news release, the authority stated the transit center — with six bus bays, bicycle and scooter storage, ride-sharing connections, solar panels and electric bus charging stations — will be built on city-owned vacant land at Myrtle Avenue and Court Street.
However, City Manager Jon Jennings put those plans in doubt, saying Wednesday that the transit authority’s agreement to acquire that site from the city expired at the end of 2021 when its third federal grant application fell through. Jennings said he’s since had multiple conversations with Miller explaining the site “is not in play” and that he “couldn’t have been more clear.”
Jennings, who took over city administration in November, said the site would be better suited for housing and mixed uses to boost downtown revitalization.
“I’m not sure St. Petersburg, for instance, would give up a spectacular green space right on the main corridor for a multimodal facility,” Jennings said. “I’m not sure Clearwater would do that either.”
Stephanie Rank, the transit authority’s spokesperson, said in a statement that the Rebuilding America Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grant is tied to the location identified in its application.
“Since the grant is site specific, we would essentially lose the $20 million from the United States Department of Transportation,” if the location is changed, Rank said.
The new facility is needed to replace the 40-year-old bus terminal on Park Street, one of the busiest hubs in Tampa Bay, according to Rank, with 2,300 riders each weekday. The roof on the terminal is too low to fit electric buses, so operators have had to pick up and drop off passengers on streets around the terminal.
Transit authority officials identified the city’s Myrtle Avenue and Court Street property as the site for the transit center in all four of its applications for the federal grant since 2019. Talks about a transit center on the site go back a decade.
The now-expired 2021 agreement with the city included a land swap: the transit authority would have gotten the Myrtle Avenue and Court Street site and the city would have acquired the transit authority’s Park Street site.
After the 2021 application failed, Jennings informed Miller at least as early as December that he was pursuing other uses for the city’s Myrtle Avenue and Court Street parcel. The transit authority submitted its most recent application for the federal grant in April 2022 using that site as the location.
Clearwater officials had long planned to build a new City Hall on the Park Street bus terminal site. But in March, the City Council agreed instead to build its City Hall on vacant land a few blocks away, next to the municipal services building and police headquarters.
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On a trip to Washington, D.C., in July, City Council member David Allbritton, the city’s representative on the transit authority, and Miller met with transportation department staff to advocate for the federal funds.
On Wednesday, Allbritton said officials have worked too hard over the years to lose $20 million. He said he knew Jennings was opposed to the transit center on the city site but was not clear it was off the table.
“Jon Jennings thinks there’s a better use for that site, and he could be right, but I’ve been thinking for 10 years that’s where it’s going to go,” Allbritton said. “I want it to go there along with 100 other people who’ve written letters in support of it.”
Allbritton said he plans to raise the issue for discussion at the City Council’s Monday work session.
The transit authority’s April 2022 application estimates the project at $34.4 million. Due to inflation, Rank said it has risen to $44.5 million.
Rank said the remaining sources include $2.3 million from the Florida Department of Transportation and $9.6 million in other federal funding. Forward Pinellas, the county’s planning organization, has committed $2.2 million.
Rank said the transit authority also intends to request funding from Pinellas County.