St. Pete Beach commissioners cool to PSTA bus route proposal

Commissioner Terri Finnerty says sewer system repair is the priority.
Commissioner Terri Finnerty says sewer system repair is the priority.
Published Oct. 12, 2016

ST. PETE BEACH — Despite the pleas of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, city officials made it clear Tuesday they cannot afford a proposed bus rapid transit system connecting the city with downtown St. Petersburg.

And although the City Commission said it would not entirely "close the door" to participating in the project, it appeared unlikely commissioners will agree at their Oct. 25 meeting.

Particularly at issue are the millions of dollars the city needs to repair and update its leaking sewer system.

"We are in a position right now that this (cost) is just prohibitive," said Commissioner Terri Finnerty. "Do we want poop in the streets or a bus coming up and down Gulf Boulevard?"

The PSTA had sent its CEO, Brad Miller, as well a contingent of its board members to the two-hour meeting to argue for the new bus route and ask for $1 million to help fund the project.

The new limited-stop bus route would loop between the two cities and run approximately every 20 minutes.

"I am so very excited about this project," said Darden Rice, PSTA chairwoman and vice chair of the St. Petersburg City Council. "Our studies show St. Pete Beach is by far the best location."

Rice said the proposed route "is an important piece of the mass transit puzzle."

PSTA officials argued that the route would benefit residents, businesses and tourists alike by connecting the city to St. Petersburg's restaurants, theater and museums and provide a better system for St. Petersburg-based riders to reach the beaches.

This argument fell flat as most commissioners said few of their residents would use the service.

"They just won't," said Finnerty. "The hoteliers are the ones who benefit from this. Why aren't the hoteliers paying for this?"

St. Pete Beach is one of the few Pinellas County cities that is not a member of the PSTA. As a result, its residents do not pay an estimated $1.8 million in annual property taxes for access to bus service.

Instead, the city would be responsible for $710,000 for operational costs within its city limits, in addition to $320,000 in one-time start-up capital costs, according to Heather Sobush, PSTA planning manager.

That amount would be in addition to the $500,000 the city already pays for its portion of the beach trolley service.

Several commissioners said they did not see the need for the new service since the Beach Trolley already connects to downtown St. Petersburg.

"I can't go to my residents and say this is an awesome idea," said Vice Mayor Rick Falkenstein, suggesting the PSTA simply expand the existing trolley service.

All the commissioners were upset with comments made at the PSTA board meeting last month when board members were critical of the city for not being a member.

They were also angry at the County Commission for "holding us hostage" over PSTA membership.

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"A county commissioner threatened us that if we don't go along (with the PSTA), we can forget coming to them for our (Community Redevelopment Agency)," Finnerty said. "How dare they?"

The city is hoping the county will set aside some future property tax revenue to help the city redevelop its downtown core infrastructure.

"That's the reason I won't give my yes vote," Falkenstein said.

Earlier in the meeting, Miller said some county commissioners are willing to consider helping fund city infrastructure projects to make it easier for the city to afford the bus route.

What the PSTA wants is the City Commission to approve the proposed route "in concept" at its Oct. 25 meeting to allow planning to continue.

"We hope there can be a collaborative conversation over the next six months," Miller said, adding that a city commitment is needed to qualify for state and federal grant monies.