1. Florida Politics

Details of Greenlight Pinellas bus lanes will come after vote on tax

Specifics of a Bus Rapid Transit system won't be designed unless voters approve a 1-cent sales tax for mass transit projects.
Published May 5, 2014

Details of Pinellas County's mass transit initiative, Greenlight Pinellas, already have opponents in overdrive, sputtering over an informational email from Friends of Greenlight, a pro-transit political action committee.

The email discusses how the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would implement bus rapid transit countywide.

"Bus Rapid Transit will help the Pinellas bus system move faster, but it won't take existing lanes from other vehicles," the email reads. It's paired with an artist's rendering of the 1100 block of Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg. The street has been altered to include a bus stop and a new bus lane in front of the block's businesses.

The image shows one other thing: that the center turn lane on Fourth Street N has been removed.

How is it that supporters promise the transit overhaul will not result in fewer traffic lanes, while an image shows the opposite? PolitiFact Florida wanted to learn more.

Understanding the concept of bus rapid transit (known as BRT) is key to predicting how Greenlight Pinellas alters existing traffic capacity.

With BRT, the focus is on moving the buses as quickly and as directly as possible. Annie Weinstock, a director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, said a BRT system typically include:

• Dedicated bus lanes (ideally in street medians).

• Intersections that prevent turns across bus lanes.

• Transit signal priority that detects buses and changes lights accordingly.

• Roadside fare boxes so passengers pay before boarding.

• Platform-level boarding to help move passengers — especially handicapped and elderly passengers — onto the bus.

Greenlight Pinellas incorporates many of these changes, but it's difficult to say which ones, or where they're going to be.

We do know that bus lanes would be built from existing medians and shoulders on most major roads, except St. Petersburg's First Avenue N and First Avenue S. Those one-way streets, running in opposite directions, are lightly traveled enough to give up an entire lane for bus service without causing traffic problems, transit officials say.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would work with the Florida Department of Transportation, the county and local municipalities to see if other lanes or rights of way could be used for buses, said PSTA external affairs officer Bob Lasher. But the details of what those changes would look like aren't done yet, because the initiative hasn't been approved by voters.

"The actual stop-by-stop, turn-by-turn details won't be known until after the engineering and environmental studies are done, which would be only if the measure passes, due to expense," he said. "If we were to put out that kind of money before hand, and it failed, that would be a big loss and irresponsible of us."

Ironically, without those details, opponents continue to pick apart the plan. If it's altering Fourth Street in such a misguided way, what else will it do?

The problem is, Greenlight Pinellas doesn't aim to remove the turn lane from Fourth Street N.

"That photo — which is a mock up — was to demonstrate what a BRT station would look like," Lasher said, pointing out the payment kiosk on the sidewalk at the bus stop. "I use it for that and when I explain off-board fare payment. It was never meant to imply that we would be taking a lane along Fourth Street. Our graphics artists used the backdrop, because they liked the background."

Friends of Greenlight spokesman Kyle Parks said they would strive to make sure people understood the image was a rendering designed to show what a bus stop would look like and nothing more.

So is it possible traffic lanes may be sacrificed, even the turn lane along Fourth Street? Could capital improvements to major roadways really be made without affecting other drivers?

The answer is that we can't say definitively until after the engineers get down to the nitty-gritty. And that can only happen if the 1-cent tax passes Nov. 4.

Overall, we do know that the claim that bus rapid transit "won't take existing lanes from other vehicles" needs to be qualified, because two thoroughfares in St. Petersburg will be losing lanes if a 1-cent tax increase passes. We can say that there are no plans currently to remove the center turning lane from Fourth Street N, and an artist's rendering showing that outcome was actually intended to show what a new bus stop might look like.

So there's no intention to take away traffic lanes beyond the two Greenlight Pinellas mentions, but there's also no possible way to guarantee it won't happen. The plan will be implemented with the input of many local municipalities and the state, which means any number of outcomes are possible. We rate the statement Mostly False.

This report has been edited for print.


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