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Transit Leaders Talk Rail in Pinellas

The route includes a stop from downtown Clearwater to St. Petersburg that officials say could take less than hour to travel.

Imagine getting on a train in downtown Clearwater and going to a Rays game in St. Petersburg in about an hour without the mileage or fuel expense.

If Clearwater city leaders could, it seems they would approve a plan that would bring light rail and other mass transit options to Pinellas County. But to get on track, voters would have to sign off on the plan that would rely on increased taxes to pay a portion of its construction.

The county is mapping out its future transit plan in an alternatives analysis, a study that’s required before the county can get any federal matching dollars. The analysis places light rail along two corridors – ones connecting Downtown Clearwater and St. Pete to the Greater Gateway area.

The cost, and who will pay it, was a big question residents had for officials at an online town hall regarding a plan to bring light passenger rail to Pinellas. Wednesday’s meeting was the fourth of its kind. The remote town hall featured four local transit officials fielding questions from residents.

Participants – some of them randomly selected – had a chance to ask questions by phone or through the Internet.

The questions revolved around the county’s tentative plan to substantially fortify its public transportation system. A key aspect of this proposed multi-decade overhaul is light rail.

“We're really just going back to where we started from," said St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner, referring to the area’s reliance on streetcars in the early days. Danner also serves as a member of the Pinellas group looking to expand the county's transportation system. 

Pinellas On Track is a consortium of members from various county planning and transportation boards including the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, the Metropolitan Planning Organzition, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and the Florida Department of Transportation. The group is working on a locally preferred alternative route and plan to bring light rail to the area. 

The initiative has weight, which would use the current CSX rail line between Clearwater and Largo. The route would use medians along West Bay and I-275 to make connections to the Gateway area and downtown St. Petersburg.

Downtown Clearwater would link to Gateway via Alt. 19 and Largo’s East Bay Drive. Rail would connect Gateway and Downtown St. Pete via the I-275 corridor.

Pinellas County is one of the most densely populated areas of the state. Officials are hoping rail and a vastly expanded bus system will help ease congestion along major Pinellas thoroughfares.

"Right now you're pretty much restricted to either driving your car or taking the bus," said Indian Rocks Beach Mayor RB Johnson.

The big drive for the project is development which panel members would spur job growth. Some citizens had questions about money and who would pay it.

Scott Pringle, of Jacobs Engineering Group, gave Clearwater city leaders a presentation on the plan. He said the costs would be 50 percent local and a 50 percent match among federal, state and private dollars that would be financed over 30 years.

The 16 rail stations and 24 miles of transit rail would cost anywhere between $1.5 - $1.7 billion, according to preliminary cost estimates, Pringle said. 

The plan assumes a 1 percent sales tax as the funding source, which Pinellas voters would have to approve.

In neighboring Hillsborough County, voters rejected a similar ballot measure in November 2010.

“They had not gone this far on the plans they put before their voters. They did not have the level of detail we have today," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. “I don't think this will go to the voters before being full cooked.”

Pinellas officials have said they’re taking the process a little more slowly, and making sure they present the full picture to voters before the question gets to the ballot.

One questioner wondered whether a Pinellas ballot initiative to fund transit would go anywhere, given the fate of Hillsborough’s.

"The answer is no," said Bob Clifford, executive director of Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.

Danner said the Pinellas project would take decades to come to fruition, though residents would begin to see changes much sooner.

"Almost immediately you would see an improved bus system," he said.

This might mean that buses run every 20 minutes instead of every half-hour, or that they serve entertainment-rich areas like Downtown St. Petersburg much later into the evening.

The panel stressed that the transit overhaul wouldn’t be about forcing people to live differently; it’s more of a way to deal with challenges like congestion and the often high cost of commuting.

"This project is about providing alternatives," said Sarah Ward, interim director of the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization. "Gasoline costs continue to go up."

Officials hope to finalize the route Jan. 30. Check out the county’s proposal at www.pinellasontrack.com.

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