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  1. Transportation

St. Pete's new bus line forces a choice: Bike lanes or parking?

Planning for the city's Bus Rapid Transit line is at a key decision point. An 11-block stretch is wide enough to include a bike lane or parking, but not both.
Dedicated bus lanes planned for First avenues N and S will require St. Petersburg to either eliminate parking on one side of each avenue or cut the bike lanes on an 11-block portion of the route. This rendering shows the bike lane prevailing at the expense of parking.
Published Jan. 30

ST. PETERSBURG — A city working to make its streets accessible to all users will once again have to choose between cars, bikes and transit.

St. Petersburg will start construction later this year on the Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit line, which will connect downtown and the beaches with a 30-minute trip that makes 17 stops. For a majority of the 11-mile route, buses will run in dedicated lanes along First avenues N and S. Vehicles turning into businesses, driveways and side streets will also be able to use those lanes.

But there's a hiccup in the design: There isn't enough room on the one-way avenues between 20th and 31st streets to include two lanes of regular traffic, a dedicated bus lane, a bike lane and parking on both sides of the street. Something will have to go.

"Unfortunately, we just don't have the real estate to do all of it in the corridors we have," City Council member Darden Rice said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: State's $9.5 million grant will help rapid buses connect St. Pete, beaches

This choice between parking and bike lanes is the latest point of tension in an ongoing struggle between how people move around the city.

The decision to eliminate a traffic lane on Martin Luther King Jr. Street N to add bike lanes on each side of the street faced criticism from the business community but was praised by advocates for bike and pedestrian safety. The city has other plans in the works for mid-block pedestrian crossings, enhanced crosswalks, trails and bike lanes — all which elicit a range of support and disdain depending on who you ask.

"This isn't just about these particular 11 blocks or the … project on MLK North," Rice said. "This is about how we're transitioning to a city that supports greater transit options and choices. But there are trade-offs in how we get there."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Is a bike lane bikelash brewing over St. Pete's MLK Jr. Street N?

Because of the limited room along the Bus Rapid Transit corridor, city transportation director Evan Mory told members of the council's transportation committee that the city will have to either cut the bike lanes on the 11-block stretch in question or eliminate parking on the right side of the avenues. Because of the polarizing nature of the debate, committee members decided to bring the subject before the full City Council for discussion. The council is scheduled to discuss the subject in late March.

The debate pertains only to those 11 blocks. The bike lanes will be moved to Central Avenue from from 31st Street west to Pasadena Ave N.

No impact is expected on parking for most of the rest of the route, said Abhishek Dayal, director of project management at the county's bus agency. The exceptions are where bus-loading platforms are planned at 58th, 49th, 40th, 34th, 22nd, 13th, Eighth and Fourth streets. A few on-street parking spaces will have to go to make room for the station platforms.

City and transit officials have scheduled meetings with business owners and neighborhoods to gather input on the bike-versus-parking debate in the Grand Central District.

Grand Central District president Jonathan Tallon said the association hasn't issued an official stance on the subject, but Tallon said many people he's spoken with view the loss of some parking as a viable tradeoff to gain streets that are more accessible for transit, cyclists and pedestrians.

"I really do feel the future of the city is bikable, walkable, and road sharable," Tallon said. "But this is going to be a big shift. … It's certainly going to generate a lot of opinions."

Tallon said some business owners are concerned about the loss of parking, but that anxiety is quelled slightly by the recent addition of 32 spots along Central Avenue.

Rick Ramdohr, 22, of St. Petersburg said he'd rather see the city cut the bike lanes.

"I know that sounds callous, but if you have to wear a suit to go to work, a bike is not your best friend," Ramdohr said. "And, besides, I'll believe in Pinellas County's public transport when I see it. A lot of honeyed words don't do a damn bit of good for improving transport."

The city is taking inventory of how much parking is used on First avenues N and S to understand the overall parking supply and demand. Mory said average parking occupancy in 2018 and January "is fairly low" on those avenues.

The occupancy numbers vary depending on time of day, but counts done in September and January show the highest average of spots occupied between 20th and 31st Streets was 34 percent.

Regardless of whether officials choose to keep parking on both sides of the street or just one, Mory said the spaces will be widened to 9 feet "so that some people don't feel like they have to drive over the curb and park half of the car on the grass."

If the bike lanes are eliminated, Mory said the city will mark "sharrows" — arrows on the pavement that indicate cars and bikes should share the road — on one of the traffic lanes so that cyclists can continue west even without a bike lane. Sharrows are also used on this section of Central Avenue to let drivers know cyclists are legally allowed to ride there rather than immediately behind angle-parked cars.

If the bike lanes remain, they will be widened to a 5-foot bike lane with a two-foot striped buffer between travel lanes.

The city needs to inform the county's bus agency of its final decision by the end of March, Mory said.

The $41 million project is expected to start operating late next year or early 2021.

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

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