PSTA bus hub no more, Williams Park braces for change

Officials are making sure bus riders near Williams Park know where to go this Sunday.
Published February 8 2016
Updated February 9 2016

ST. PETERSBURG

For Gladys Russell and her husband, Albert, waiting at Williams Park to catch a bus to her mother's nursing home is an almost daily ritual.

But change is coming Sunday, when a new system will route buses away from the park. To prepare, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has deployed staffers wearing neon yellow vests to answer questions and hand out booklets about an impending shift.

"I got one, but I didn't understand it," Gladys Russell said of the 34-page booklet.

Still, she welcomed what she believes will be an improvement to Williams Park, which for years has been ringed with buses and crowded bus shelters while also attracting loiterers and troublemakers.

"It is something which I had been praying for," Russell said. "Look at this park. They have sex here. They sell drugs here. They fight here. I really hate to come down here. I am hoping they fix this park up so people can enjoy it."

In a few days, PSTA buses will bypass the park and travel through downtown in a grid running between Fifth Avenue N and Third Avenue S, east to First Street and west to Fifth Street. Some routes, though, will extend to Beach Drive and Sixth Avenue S.

Bus shelters that stood around the historic square have already been carted away. In their place, sandwich boards announce bus routes and herald the new plan. Williams Park has been a bus hub since 1952 and is home to 16 routes.

Much of the space reserved for the bus lanes will be transformed into angled parking and, on Fourth Street N, a spot for food trucks and queues for car and bike share.

Last week, Rafael Lowe, 38, said he is a regular bus rider. He travels back and forth to St. Petersburg College, where he's majoring in social studies. He also rides to work as a stocker at two Walmart stores, one in St. Petersburg and another in Tampa. He also uses the bus when he shops for groceries at the downtown Publix.

"It's going to be a little inconvenient," Lowe said of the change, "but for the most part, it's going to work out. It will give the city a better look."

And, he added, it will be good to get passengers away from Williams Park and those who hang out there. "There's going to be nobody for them to panhandle. I am assuming they are going to migrate," he said.

On this day, homeless men and women mostly sit or lie on the grass, possessions shoved into garbage bags, suitcases and backpacks.

Around the park's perimeter, PSTA staffers, including spokesman Bob Lasher and staffing and development manager Trish Collins, are talking to riders. The next day would bring St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, who is the new PSTA board chair.

"I got a few really good questions," she said. "There was one man who was used to picking up his bus at Williams Park. I asked him where he lived and we figured out that the new bus stop would be about a block and half from his home and that it would still take him directly to St. Anthony's. So that made him feel better."

Rice said she understands that change is difficult, making it important that riders be guided through the transition.

"This is an important change of service for PSTA and an important change for the city," she said.

But some passengers, like Brandi Johnson, who needs two buses to take her from her neighborhood south of town to her job at McDonald's in the north, are apprehensive.

"I think it will make it difficult for me to get to work," she said.

Lasher said the PSTA will have extra "ambassadors" on hand until a few days after the new system is in place. Additionally, the new booklets and schedules will be on buses, as well as at PSTA's customer service booth, which is remaining at Williams Park.

Bus driver Ken Elliott said he has been fielding questions.

The most often asked is, " 'Where are we going to make our connection and catch our bus?' " he said. "It's a change, but I've been telling the passengers they won't want to go back."

Rice said that the new system means that bus stops will be dispersed throughout downtown.

"There will be some businesses that will want the bus stops at their front doors and some that won't," she said. "We are going into it with a sense of flexibility and openness."

G.W. Rolle, who helps to provide meals for the homeless and sits on the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board, is concerned about the upcoming plan.

"There is a lot of confusion and people don't know what's going on," said Rolle, who was himself homeless.

"Some people obviously think that it's some type of conspiracy to get rid of the homeless. The police say that it isn't. The city says that it isn't. The PSTA says that it isn't, and we just have to wait and see what is going on."

Rice said the new system was not devised to drive the homeless out of Williams Park.

"It's a public park. Even homeless people deserve a clean, safe park," she said.

"I think moving the buses out of Williams Park will go a long way toward making the park safer for everyone."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes

 
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