Editorial: Move forward with bus rapid transit linking St. Petersburg, St. Pete Beach. And stop the sniping.

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses in downtown St. Petersburg. Times (2014)
Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses in downtown St. Petersburg. Times (2014)
Published June 14, 2019

Despite a few bumps, Tampa Bay's first bus rapid transit project continued to move forward this week. The $44 million project that would run buses using primarily dedicated lanes between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach is a reasonable first effort that can be adjusted along the way. But the key for success will be cooperation among local governments, and the verbal jabs between supporters and skeptics aren't helpful.

This is not a sudden brainstorm. Proposals for bus rapid transit between St. Petersburg and the beaches have been bouncing around for more than a decade. This one has gotten some traction with the federal government, which would cover half of the cost, and with regional, county and St. Petersburg officials who correctly recognize that multiple transit options are critical to Tampa Bay's long-term success. It's an appropriate first step, and it's important that it be successful to set the stage for more ambitious regional transit efforts.

The plan calls for 40-foot buses to run every 15 minutes from downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach. There would be painted, dedicated bus lanes along First Avenues N and S in St. Petersburg and on part of a 2-mile stretch of Pasadena Avenue S. When the buses leave South Pasadena, they would run in mixed traffic. This is a straight-forward approach at an acceptable cost that requires little new infrastructure, and it should not be hard to make improvements after it gets started.

Of course, not everyone is on board. The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday unanimously agreed to dedicate $4 million to the project, combining with the state, the county and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to cover half of the cost. St. Pete Beach commissioners, who have long been illogically hostile to transit, have rejected the project and generally been uncooperative. But there is no reason this cannot be a win for everyone, including beach hotels and other businesses that need public transportation options for their workers and for tourists who would prefer not to rent a car to even glimpse the sand and the Gulf.

First, ratchet down the rhetoric on both sides. It's not helpful for Forward Pinellas executive director Whit Blanton to jump up and lecture St. Pete Beach commissioners. Or for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman to threaten to shove 60-foot buses down St. Pete Beach's throat if it doesn't get in line. Or for St. Pete Beach Commissioner Melinda Pletcher to complain about "mafia move threats.''

There have been some missteps by the project's supporters, such as suggesting St. Pete Beach might kick in $1.5 million when that never was going to happen. But they also have made good-faith efforts at building consensus by moving to smaller buses and looking for other sites on the beach for the route to end. It's time for St. Pete Beach to respond in kind.

For example, the bus route should reach as far south as the Don CeSar hotel, or at least to another spot a bit north that the transit authority has offered. St. Pete Beach's demand that the route barely enter the city suggests it isn't interested in sharing the public beaches with all of the people who might ride the bus, which surely isn't their intention. It is in no one's interest to spend millions in public dollars on a bus rapid transit project that is not as successful as it should be because the route does not go far enough down the beach.

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The fate of this project still depends first on the federal government coming through with its half of the money. It depends on the transit authority continuing to be flexible on the beach and elsewhere, because plans for use of the dedicated lanes and nearby parking may need to be adjusted along the way. And it depends on building broader community support and stopping the sniping that does not play well to the region or to Washington.

In the big picture, this bus rapid transit project is a modest first effort. But it's a start, and it needs to be successful for Tampa Bay to demonstrate it is prepared to embrace more robust regional mass transit to ease chronic traffic congestion.