ST. PETE BEACH — Dissension is brewing as Pinellas' bus agency draws closer to submitting a final plan to federal officials for a new route that would connect downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches using a special bus lane for a majority of the trip.
Discussions for the bus rapid transit project — a term referring to bus routes that have their own lane among other features — started gaining momentum in 2015.
But despite dozens of public meetings, questions are still swirling over some of the most basic facts of the project: Where will it run? What size buses will it use? Who will pay for it?
One Pinellas resident and an elected official got into a brief back-and-forth last week at a regional transportation meeting over those exact questions.
"I think there's a lot of confusion about this," South Pasadena resident Peter Franco had told officials from Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough at the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area Leadership Group meeting Friday. Franco then shared concerns about lane removals and 60-foot "monster buses."
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said the project is not taking lanes away from general traffic on St. Pete Beach and will not use extra-long buses.
"In South Pasadena, you are," Franco said from the audience.
"No, sir, I apologize, but you are wrong," Long replied.
It's a familiar conversation. Citizens who oppose the project say officials at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority have mislead the public about the details of the project. Transit leaders say opponents continue to spread misinformation.
The two sides are expected to clash again Tuesday when the bus authority makes a presentation to the St. Pete Beach City Commission. The Tampa Bay Times interviewed supporters and opponents and reviewed federal documents, workshop materials and public meeting minutes to answer some of the most hotly contested questions. Here's what you need to know.
The route starts in downtown St. Petersburg, where it runs along First avenues N and S. Buses will turn onto Pasadena Avenue S and then travel down Gulf Boulevard. The agency proposed 17 stops and said buses would run every 15 minutes.
Transit officials initially considered other beach access points, including routes along Madeira Beach and Treasure Island, before settling on the South Pasadena and St. Pete Beach segment.
Visuals shown at a summer 2016 public meeting ranked Madeira Beach as "good," Treasure Island as "better" and St. Pete Beach as "best." But a couple months later, at an Oct. 25 meeting, St. Pete Beach officials declined to grant the bus authority's request to support its proposal.
The city continues to oppose the project. Maps on the bus agency's website and documents with the Federal Transit Authority show the route still includes Gulf Boulevard.
Early versions of the plan showed an 11-mile route ending near The Don Cesar hotel, including one option near Cabrillo Avenue. But a document shared at a public workshop in May 28 said the route and all other county transit services including the trolley would end farther north, at 46th Avenue as of October. This shortens the route to about 10.3 miles.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority originally proposed 60-foot buses — the kind with an accordion-type middle that help them navigate turns. They have extra doors in the middle and back of the bus and lower floors. The bus authority showed mock-ups of the buses in May 2017.
By contrast, local buses are typically 40 feet long. Vehicles that currently run on the Central Avenue Trolley route are as short as 35 feet.
Residents and businesses in South Pasadena and St. Pete Beach have repeatedly spoken out against the extra-long buses, including comments against "these aircraft carrier buses" at public meetings in 2016. St. Pete Beach commissioners have expressed concerns that the buses are too big for their streets.
Bus agency spokeswoman Whitney Fox told the Times last week that the agency has scrapped its plans for the longer buses.
"We've heard concerns about the 60-foot buses and addressed it," Fox said. "The buses used for the ... project will not be larger than 40-feet."
But Tierra Verde resident and project opponent Sharon Calvert said the bus agency is keeping the 60-foot buses as an option in the future.
"If, after at least three years, if ridership levels grow to require a larger vehicle, St. Pete Beach would have to agree to using larger vehicles," the agency document shared May 28 said.
Pinellas transit officials said the Central Avenue rapid corridor will use bus-and-turn-only lanes for 65 percent of the project, or 6.75 miles.
These lanes, which will be painted red, can also be used by cars that are turning into a business, side street or driveway. 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 and turn lanes. That means those avenues would be reduced to two lanes for regular traffic.
The same would be true for part of Pasadena Avenue. The bus agency seeks to convert 1.5 miles of the 2-mile stretch along Pasadena to a bus-and-turn lane. Once the buses hit the Corey Causeway, they’ll run in mixed traffic.
The Pinellas bus agency is looking to pay for the project with a mix of local, state and federal dollars.
A federal grant could cover half, but requires 25 percent come from local sources. The Florida Department of Transportation has agreed to pay for the remaining quarter, or about $10.5 million, as long as the federal money comes through.
In 2017, when the county transit authority began seeking a $20 million federal grant for the then-$41-million project, the proposed financial plan included St. Pete Beach contributing $1.5 million. After repeated outcry from the city, the authority has since requested all federal and state documents delete this reference.
The estimated cost has risen to $43.9 million, as of Monday, due to additional construction work and updated labor and material costs. Local transit officials will amend their federal ask to $21.8 million.
The city of St. Petersburg has agreed to spend $4 million on the project. The county's bus agency would contribute the other $7.6 million needed for the local share from its reserves.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.