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Officials want buses out of St. Petersburg's Williams Park by February

Officers question men at one of the bus shelters. Police are a frequent presence at Williams Park, which is bordered on three sides by bus stops and populated by homeless people.
Published May 23, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The days of exhaust-belching, bumper-to-bumper buses ringing Williams Park may be numbered.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is working with city staff to change the current system that requires 21 routes to converge on the downtown park, PSTA's chief executive officer Brad Miller said Friday.

"My goal is to have the buses out of there by Feb. 1," Miller told the agency's board of directors.

That's welcome news to elected officials who have tried for years to transform the 4-acre park from a magnet for vagrants to a playground for residents, visitors and downtown workers. Officials say the buses, which have used the park as a hub since the early 1950s, encourage loitering by blocking the view of a tree-shaded green space that once served as the town square.

"To un-ring Williams Park would do good things in terms of bringing it back to life," said St. Petersburg council member Karl Nurse, whose district includes the park. "The buses serve as a wall around the park, which reinforces it as a homeless camp. You take that away and it makes it easier to recapture it."

Changing the current system would also be better for PSTA's customers, Miller said.

The majority of riders traveling to and from downtown are not transferring to other routes, yet many must travel out of their way to Williams Park because it's a hub in PSTA's route system, Miller said. He proposes that buses run on a grid system in a roughly 16-block area, probably bordered by First and Sixth streets and Fourth Avenue N and Second Avenue S.

Stops for routes that have a high number of transfers would be located at or near other routes, and many riders can also transfer at PSTA's Grand Central station on Central Avenue at 32nd Street, Miller said.

Some buses still would stop at the park but wouldn't "lay over" like they do now, he said. Nearly all of the shelters would be removed. It's unclear if PSTA's customer service center on the north edge of the park would remain. Miller said he's talking to city staff about stationing a customer service representative at the city's Municipal Services Building nearby.

The city has hired Tampa consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff to develop the plan, which would require approval from the PSTA's board of directors and the City Council. Miller said he hopes to have the plan ready for approval by both bodies in the fall and implemented as early as Feb. 1.

"PSTA and the city hear loud and clear from people that we need to do something better with Williams Park than leaving it as a bus depot," said council member Darden Rice, a PSTA board member. "It's in the heart of the city. It should be a crowning jewel, and unfortunately it's not."

The city might have some funding available to help with the cost of constructing "mini-facilities" at stops where riders are awaiting transfers, Rice said.

The plan is going to need buy-in from more than just elected officials, Rice said.

"We are going to need to work with the police and the homeless leadership groups and business owners in the area, but I think you're going to see a high level of cooperation to make this happen."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow at tmarrerotimes.

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