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Plan envisions 'rapid' bus trips from St. Pete to beaches. But will Trump fund it?

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority wants to add a bus rapid transit system, or BRT, to both directions of First Avenues N and S. But the local project needs federal dollars. The Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit buses, seen in this mock-up, would move faster along dedicated lanes than regular buses. [Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority]
Published Dec. 28, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — For the first time in the Tampa Bay region, transportation planners want to give buses their own dedicated lanes.

The proposed bus rapid transit, or BRT, system would allow buses to use those lanes to make faster, more reliable trips between downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches.

But there's one big hang-up: the federal grant that Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority needs to make it happen is on the chopping block.

The Trump administration has proposed cutting $2.4 billion, or 13 percent, from the federal Department of Transportation's 2018 budget. Those cuts target the transit money PSTA is trying to land for this project: the capital investment grant.

"There are concerns, of course," PSTA CEO Brad Miller said. "Yes, things in Washington are changing. … But Congress, especially Republicans in Congress, have now approved bills that actually increase funding for this type of project and have been very supportive in the first go-around."

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The 2018 budget is still pending approval, though, and it's unclear what measures the administration might take in fiscal year 2019, when the Pinellas project would be up for consideration.

The project is called the Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit system. It would see sleek new buses run up and down First Avenues N and S in dedicated lanes.

The proposed route would give the buses their own lane for about seven miles. Once they hit the Corey Causeway, they'll run in mixed traffic through St. Pete Beach, down Gulf Boulevard and ending near the Don Cesar Hotel.

But in order to give the buses their own route, officials will have to convert one lane along First Avenues N and S into dedicated east-west transit lanes. That means those avenues would be reduced to two lanes for regular traffic.

The BRT lanes will be marked with a big red stripe, indicating that lane is only to be used by the express bus or by any cars and other vehicles that need to turn onto driveways, businesses and cross streets.

The rapid buses would run every 15 minutes along the 11-mile route, making 17 stops along the way.

The combination of fewer stops and a bus-only lane could cut the bus trip to the beach by more than a third. The current average trip from 75th Avenue and Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach to downtown St. Petersburg is 50 minutes on the Central Avenue Trolley, according to PSTA.

The proposed BRT system, the agency said, would drop that same trip down to about 30 minutes.

While state and local governments have already agreed to chip in $21 million for the project, its future depends on landing a $20.35 million federal grant in 2019. The Trump administration and Congress have gone back and forth over whether to fund the capital investment grant and at what rate.

If the federal funds are approved in 2019, the buses could be running between downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches by 2020.

Tampa Bay area officials have tried and failed for more than three decades to build a more sophisticated transit system. Much of that debate has centered around light rail, which many consider to be a silver bullet for the region's transportation woes. But it has failed to take hold on either side of the bay.

BRT has won over supporters across the country thanks to its lower cost and more flexible nature — it's easier to make a designated bus lane than lay miles of track.

Similar systems are used on nearly every other continent and in dozens of U.S. cities, including other midsized metro areas such as Cleveland, Nashville, Pittsburgh and Phoenix. Decades of attempts to bolster Tampa Bay's anemic transit network, however, have been stalled in the planning stage, rejected by voters and politicians or thwarted by lack of funding.

BRT isn't the only transportation concept arriving late to the bay area. Express toll lanes are being incorporated into the Veterans Expressway and are at the heart of Tampa Bay Next, the state's plan to add nearly 100 miles of express toll lanes, whose prices change on demand, to the region's free interstates.

Despite a harsh budget climate in Washington D.C. for transit, Miller remains optimistic about Pinellas' ability to get the necessary dollars to move the Central Avenue BRT initiative forward.

"Congress has been very supportive of continuing this funding, especially funding for BRT projects like this one, is what we heard when we were there," Miller said. "There may be delays, but I feel much better about this funding staying in place because of the congressional support."

Miller and a contingent of Tampa Bay area representatives met with federal officials in Washington D.C. earlier this month to advocate for the project, calling it the first concrete step in an effort to build a regional transit network.

It's the first time local transportation, political and business leaders have come together to back a single project with a united front — something Miller said can go a long way toward gaining federal support.

Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Rick Homans, who was on the trip, called it a "challenging climate" for federal transit funding. But he also said the group received positive feedback about the strength of this particular project.

"The fact is this project is really well put together," he said. "All the money is in hand at the state and local level. From a technical standpoint, it's very straightforward."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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