St. Pete Beach officials say transit agency misrepresented stakes in bus project

City leaders told the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority in 2016 they would not give any money for a bus rapid transit route, but the transportation group kept including St. Pete Beach contributions in documents submitted to the federal government.

St. Pete Beach attracts throngs of tourists. [Florida Beach Insider photo]
St. Pete Beach attracts throngs of tourists. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

For years, St. Pete Beach officials have told transit officials they don’t support paying for a bus rapid transit system connecting their beaches to downtown St. Petersburg.

The forceful message stretches back until at least October 2016, when residents and commissioners declined to grant the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority's request to support its 11-mile bus route proposal.

“We don't need it, our community does not even use the trolley much less any kind of bus that they might want to bring onto our beaches,” resident Vickey Imes said at an Oct. 25, 2016 meeting.

But in 2017 when the county transit authority began seeking a $20 million federal grant for the $41-million project, the proposed financial plan included St. Pete Beach contributing $1.5 million.

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Those dollars, combined with $5 million from the county bus agency and $4 million from St. Petersburg, helped the the Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit proposal reach a key threshold: All applicants for federal money must have 25 percent of the project covered by local funds .

“We told them well over a year now that we haven't committed to any money and I doubt that we ever would,” Mayor Alan Johnson said Thursday. “They're misrepresenting our financial involvement, and they have been for a long time.”

On March 12 the City Commission directed staff to draft a resolution opposing the project and declaring the city has repeatedly requested the transit authority stop misrepresenting its financial commitment. But officials tabled a vote on the resolution Tuesday, hours after transit authority director of project management Abhishek Dayal emailed the city asking to address the commission and agreeing to “immediately adjust all grant documents and other assumptions to show no direct financial funding from the city.”

CEO Brad Miller on Thursday said nothing about the process was deceitful. Federal authorities require agencies put together financial plans listing potential sources long before the project design is final. That proposal helps the agency earn a project rating and enter the federal pipeline for funding. Those funds do not have to be committed until a formal grant application is filed, which will happen later this year.

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When the Federal Transit Authority asked county officials in a February email what local money was committed so far, Dayal responded with only two sources: $4 million from St. Petersburg and $6.5 million from the county bus agency.

This is not the first time the Pinellas agency has been accused of misleading a federal agency. In 2014 the transit authority had to repay a $354,000 federal grant after spending the money on three commercials promoting Greenlight Pinellas, the failed transit referendum. The grant was supposed to be spent on advertising protecting against terrorism.

Elected officials and residents in St. Pete Beach said the county transit authority deliberately misrepresented their interest in the bus rapid transit project to earn a higher rating from federal officials.

“They used our city as a tool,” Vice Mayor Melinda Pletcher said in a March 12 meeting.

Commissioner complaints go beyond the money. Leaders say the county transit authority long ignored their repeated criticism of the project, which would bring 60-foot buses down Gulf Boulevard, a thoroughfare with heavy pedestrian traffic. Commissioners, who question the estimated ridership numbers, called the project “a safety issue” that can clog streets and endanger tourists.

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Though the project has been lauded regionally and within St. Petersburg as the first bus rapid transit system in Tampa Bay, others along the beaches have questioned the usefulness of the route that would connect downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches using a dedicated lane along First Avenues N and S. The buses would move back into regular traffic along Pasadena Avenue and head south along Gulf Boulevard ending at the Don CeSar near the Pinellas Bayway.

On May 1, the city of South Pasadena sent a letter to the Florida Department of Transportation expressing concern over the proposal and other projects “that could negatively affect the flow of traffic within the city.”

On Jan. 30 the Sailboat Key Board of Directors passed a resolution opposing the project on behalf of the 818 units of the Harbourside community.

St. Pete Beach is not a member of the county transit authority, which means residents don’t pay into the agency’s budget through their property taxes. Instead, the city has an a-la-carte style agreement, where the city pays about $570,000 a year for trolley service and paratransit.

Miller said staff used the same process to determine how much the city would be responsible for with the Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit route.

“We had basically applied that same formula and sort of assumed that,” Miller said. “That has changed. We understand they not are going to do that.”

Buses for the proposed bus rapid transit route connecting St. Petersburg to the beaches would be 60 feet long and articulated in the middle. [Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority photo]

Studies of the route connecting downtown St. Petersburg with the beaches estimate it would have 4,500 daily rides. But city officials questioned those statistics.

“When they talk about it, they talk about it in generalities like 'well, there's about 80 people at this stop that goes to Pass-a-grille,' and well, what is 'about?'” Commissioner Doug Izzo said. “Do you actually have ridership numbers?”

Overall bus ridership in Pinellas County has dropped steadily since 2016 after experiencing six years of growth. Total rides in 2018 were 18 percent lower than 2015, returning to pre-recession averages of about 11 million trips a year.

The Central Avenue Trolley attracts just under 3,000 rides a day along a similar route that takes 50 minutes. The transit agency expects the new route to do it in 30 minutes with fewer stops, which it hopes will entice more riders.

Ridership projections show tourists and people employed at the restaurants and hotels along the beach as a targeted demographic.

Although Commissioner Ward Friszolowski spoke against the project during a March meeting, he said wants to continue a dialogue with the transit authority about finding a compromise.

He said he is not against bus rapid transit, but he doesn’t support St. Pete Beach paying the transit authority any more money. The extra long buses proposed for the route also continue to frustrate him and other commissioners.

“I am concerned with the size and the scale of (the buses) from a safety standpoint,” Friszolowski said. “And I don't know if there is the ridership to support that either.”

This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on March 29, 2019.

Caitlin Johnston has lived in Florida for six years and is finally adjusting to the heat. She loves hiking, exploring remote beaches and snorkeling.
Tracey McManus covers the Pinellas County Commission and the city of Clearwater for the Tampa Bay Times.