Stuck in traffic? Pinellas, Pasco could consider express bus service

A study suggests a Bayonet Point-to-Gateway rush-hour route could reduce congestion
A Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus is stopped near agency headquarters in St. Petersburg to pick up passengers. A new study suggests an express bus service between Bayonet Point in west Pasco and the Gateway area of Pinellas could help reduce rush-hour congestion.
A Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus is stopped near agency headquarters in St. Petersburg to pick up passengers. A new study suggests an express bus service between Bayonet Point in west Pasco and the Gateway area of Pinellas could help reduce rush-hour congestion. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]
Published Oct. 18, 2022|Updated Oct. 18, 2022

Take a look at the northbound traffic on U.S. 19 or McMullen Booth Road heading toward neighboring Pasco County, says Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long.

“In the afternoon, on any day of the week, it is gridlock,” she said. “Same if you’re coming south in the morning. People are moving around in this region.”

The goal, she said, is for policymakers to get people to move around more efficiently and economically.

It’s the reason for a Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority study of so-called bus rapid transit service potentially linking Pasco and Pinellas counties. The preliminary results, scheduled to be shared with the transit authority’s board on Friday, includes a recommendation to take an economical approach before opting for the full luxury model.

A rush-hour express bus service, running between State Road 52 in Bayonet Point and a planned intermodal center in the Gateway area of Pinellas, could serve 207,300 riders annually if it operated every 30 minutes between 6 and 9 a.m. and again from 4 to 7 p.m.

It comes with start-up costs projected at $7 million or less and still requires more than 80 minutes to travel the 35-mile route.

By comparison, a full-blown bus rapid transit system operating in transit-only lanes on U.S. 19 could carry capital costs of as much as $161 million and annual operating expenses five times as much as the express bus service. However, it also is projected to attract as many as 719,000 riders a year and reduce the travel time to 66 minutes.

Don’t look for new buses anytime soon. The feasibility study is just the first step toward devising detailed cost projects, measuring local support and identifying how to pay for it all. But if Pasco and Pinellas officials agree, adding the proposal to each county’s long-range transportation plan would be a likely precursor to pursuing eventual development of the system.

Pasco commission chairperson Kathryn Starkey called the scaled-down service ― using modern buses and a queue-jumping system to allow the vehicles to bypass traffic lights — “a winning combination to start out with.”

“I think it’s a connection that makes sense,” Starkey said. “I think we’re going to have more and more cars using that route. We’ve got to get something going.”

U.S. 19 has posed a decadeslong problem for traffic and pedestrian safety. In west Pasco, it doubles as a north-south commuter route for through traffic as well as a local road — with no frontage routes — for customers traveling to its urbanized commercial district.

State Department of Transportation traffic counts from 2021 show 67,000 vehicles travel daily on U.S. 19, south of State Road 54. That trails only Interstate 75 as the busiest north-south road in Pasco County.

Traffic grows significantly in Pinellas County, reaching 119,000 vehicles each day on the highway as it approaches Sunset Point Road in Clearwater.

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The study doesn’t quantify a specific number of drivers who would park their vehicles in favor of taking the bus. However, it projects vehicle miles traveled by motorists would be cut by more than 700,000 annually just with the rush-hour express service.

Currently, Pasco’s transit service, GOPASCO, extends two of its routes to Pinellas County — to the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs, and to the Tarpon Mall shopping center on U.S. 19 — where riders can connect to Pinellas Suncoast Transportation Authority vehicles to continue southward. The route to the Sponge Docks attracted 13,667 riders last year.

A two-county express service would allow “people the flexibility to travel quickly through the area, providing greater access to employment, medical appointments and other necessary services,” said Sarah Andeara, a Pasco County public information officer.

Bus rapid transit is a type of bus route that uses dedicated lanes, fewer stops and quicker boarding. It is being introduced to the public this week with the SunRunner, the Pinellas Suncoast authority’s new service linking downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach.

Separately, the Tampa Bay regional transit authority has kicked around a proposed 41-mile bus rapid transit system from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg, a project that faces mounting questions because of objections from Hillsborough County leaders and from the agency’s own uncertain future. Gov. Ron DeSantis has vetoed an appropriation for the authority each of the past three years and some local governments are declining to pay their annual dues.

In that regard, a Pinellas-to-west Pasco route could prove easier to achieve politically since it would avoid critiques from Hillsborough interests and be accomplished with an interlocal agreement between the two participating counties.

“Anything that moves the dial,” said Long, "to provide public transportation for our citizens would be something that I would be very interested in discussing further.”