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  1. Transportation

A 'mafia move' is alleged as two cities clash over bus route linking St. Pete to the beaches

St. Pete Beach city commissioners Terri Finerrty, Doug Izzo, Mayor Al Johnson, Ward Friszolowski and Melinda Pletcher prepare for a meeting Tuesday about a proposed bus rapid transit system from downtown St. Petersuburg to the beaches. In an emergency meeting Thursday, the commissioners rejected the plan. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Times]
Published Jun. 13

Seven hours, eight miles and different beliefs on the role of transit separated two city votes Thursday on the future of a proposed bus project in Pinellas County.

In the morning, defiant St. Pete Beach commissioners rejected the project, which would link their city to downtown St. Petersburg. One of them complained of a "mafia move" by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

By 5 p.m., the St. Petersburg City Council had its own vote, this one supporting spending $4 million on making the bus rapid transit project a reality.

The dueling votes are the latest in an ongoing feud over the future of a $44 million transit project, which would set aside special bus lanes for much of the route from downtown St. Petersburg, through South Pasadena and into St. Pete Beach.

The project was floated more than a decade ago and gained traction in 2015. County officials have called it one of the most important transportation initiatives in the region.

It has also faced strong community backlash and has gone through various modifications as planners have sought to address some major concerns by officials and residents in St. Pete Beach. Most recently, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority said it would use standard 40-foot buses instead of 60-foot buses, and would end the route at 45th Avenue and Gulf Boulevard instead of extending it to The Don Cesar hotel.

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In light of vocal opposition from residents and anti-transit advocates in the region, the five-person St. Pete Beach City Commission approved a resolution during an emergency meeting Thursday morning saying that the project could come into their city, but just barely. They wanted the line to extend no farther than the intersection of 75th Avenue and Gulf Boulevard.

The action came one day after Kriseman sent a letter to St. Pete Beach Mayor Alan Johnson asking that the neighboring beach town "not take any action that could potentially jeopardize the whole project."

Kriseman ended his two-page letter by saying the St. Petersburg City Council would discuss bringing back the extra-long buses and running the route to The Don Cesar "should St. Pete Beach take action indicating its unwillingness to be a partner in this endeavor."

Those words angered at least one St. Pete Beach commissioner and drew strong responses from others during Thursday's meeting.

"This kind of letter represents arrogance posing as virtue," commissioner Terri Finnerty said. "Mayor Kriseman, please take care of your own city and we'll take care of our own."

Commissioner Melinda Pletcher also criticized members of the transit agency board for how they have characterized St. Pete Beach commissioners.

"You throw out words like 'bigotry' and you throw out words like 'unconscionable,' and then you get into what I would consider mafia move threats just to elicit fear in our city over what?" Pletcher said. "They're messing with our community, and it's not right."

Residents had repeatedly filled commission chambers asking the elected officials to say no to the project. About two dozen people showed up at City Hall Thursday morning to applaud the commission for its decision.

"I am so proud of every single one of you here," Gulf Boulevard resident Jill LaFond told commissioners. "Thank you for listening to us.

But in St. Petersburg, half a dozen city residents petitioned their City Council to continue to support the project, regardless of the beach community's actions.

"There are some other municipalities who might not see our vision in making this work, but I feel this council and your leadership can show them the right way to go with this," said Brooks Wallington, vice-chair of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee.

The eight council members voted unanimously to move forward with a $4 million investment in the bus route.

"Our residents support this innovative bus rapid transit project," council member Darden Rice said. "Our citizens are eager to use and enjoy the benefits (the route) will bring not just to St. Petersburg but the entire county."

The project aims to give buses their own lane along First avenues N and S in St. Petersburg and on part of a 2-mile stretch of Pasadena Avenue S. Cars could use these lanes only to make a turn into a business, driveway or side street. That would leave two regular traffic lanes in each direction.

Once the buses leave South Pasadena near the Corey Causeway, they would run in mixed traffic.

Project organizers had previously wanted the buses to run down Gulf Boulevard to The Don Cesar. But with commissioners not wanting the route to extend anywhere south of 75th Avenue, it would jut into St. Pete Beach for about a third of a mile instead of close to 4 miles.

St. Pete Beach isn't saying no to the project, commissioner Ward Friszolowski said. "But we want it to where its acceptable to us."

RELATED: St. Pete Beach: PSTA mislead feds about bus rapid transit project

The bus authority also removed any mention of St. Pete Beach providing money for the project from state and federal documents. Commissioners and residents were outraged when they learned the authority had listed a $1.5 million contribution from the city as a possible local funding source, despite the fact that St. Pete Beach has expressed issues with the project since at least 2016.

"I think we've made it clear about the funding, we've made it clear about the size of the buses," Friszolowski said. "It's more about where the terminus is and how we connect to that."

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

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