CLEARWATER — Plans for a new public transit center downtown will move forward after the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority secured its final piece of funding Tuesday, with county commissioners voting to put up to $8 million toward the project.
Commissioners voted 4-2 in favor of the funding, which they had lowered from an initial $10 million request from the transit agency. The county’s portion adds to nearly $30 million in federal funding as well as commitments from the Florida Department of Transportation, county planning organization Forward Pinellas and the city of Clearwater.
The collaboration is “sort of historic,” said Brad Miller, the transit authority’s CEO. “I can’t remember a time when we got support for a project from the federal government, from the state government, and the county and the city and PSTA, all local governments working together.”
The city also will provide land for the new center at the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Court Street in a swap with the transit authority for the current bus terminal on Park Street. But the city would not allow the swap until the transit authority had funding in hand to cover the whole $44.5 million project budget — which had grown from an original $34 million due to inflation over the past year. The commission’s decision Tuesday finished bridging the gap.
Whether the county will actually need to spend all $8 million, which will come from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax, remains to be seen. It will be “last dollar” funding, meaning the county will only begin to provide it when costs have already crossed the $36.5 million threshold. About 30% of the project’s budget is for contingency planning, Miller said, largely based on uncertainty around material and labor costs in the coming years.
But Miller said he is certain that the new center is necessary. The Park Street terminal is the busiest bus stop in Pinellas County, he said, and acts as a hub for people who work all around Clearwater, and especially on Clearwater Beach.
But the 40-year-old terminal is “way past its useful life,” Miller said, adding that he’s the fourth transit authority director over the past two decades to try to secure funding for a new one. It’s small, old and dark, with a roof too low for most of the buses and all of the trolleys.
“Every morning, the buses are packed going out to the beach,” he said. “Workers from all parts of Pinellas County come into this hub. They are desperate for a facility that meets what those folks need.”
The two votes against the funding came from commissioners Dave Eggers and Kathleen Peters, who said they worried about overspending from the Penny for Pinellas budget. Commission chairperson Charlie Justice said he saw the importance of the project, though he wished the transit authority had involved the county earlier on, rather than asking for money after the cost of the project grew.
“I wish we had been brought in from Day 1,” he said. “It is a long overdue project.”