Greenlight Pinellas: Voting for better transit options

After graduating from Northeast High School in St. Petersburg and the University of North Florida, Rose Reynolds backpacked through Europe and then lived and worked in New York City for a few years. She took buses, trains and subways everywhere she went.

“I fell in love with the idea of not having a car,” says Reynolds, who just turned 30. “Public transportation was so accessible. I could get anywhere. It was so much easier and cheaper to buy a monthly bus pass rather than worry about a car payment.”

Reynolds moved back to Tampa Bay in 2010. The area’s lack of public transportation meant she had no choice but to buy a car. “I had car payments, insurance, gasoline – the whole ordeal that goes with owning a vehicle,” she says.

Now a business development assistant at Fieldstone Landscape Services, Reynolds is also a member of the St. Pete Young Professionals Council, a group sponsored by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

Addressing the region’s challenging roadways is one of the group’s priorities, says Reynolds. That includes getting behind Greenlight Pinellas, a proposed plan to create a comprehensive transportation plan for Pinellas County.

“Greenlight Pinellas is something that we wanted to champion as young professionals interested in the future of St. Petersburg,” says Reynolds. “We have to remind ourselves that this is not just about what is happening right now, but an opportunity for future generations of young professionals who might be interested in coming here.”

The plan calls for expanding bus service and building a light rail line to connect north and south Pinellas. Eventually, residents could expect a network of buses and light rail to link neighborhoods, designated employment corridors and recreational centers, say advocates of the plan.

Funding for the project would come from a penny increase in sales tax. A referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot calls for raising the sales tax in Pinellas County from 7 percent to 8 percent.  

In exchange, the portion of the property tax that currently funds Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), the county’s provider of public bus service, would be eliminated.

Although bus service is currently available in Pinellas County and PSTA reports that ridership is up 20 percent from 2006-2007, critics say the current service is limited and inconvenient. Major improvements are needed to make it a more desirable option. 

Adding service, adding riders 

Franco Ripple, a spokesperson for PSTA, says a 2012 PSTA survey of 8,492 passengers identified three priorities: more frequent service, later night service and more weekend service. 

Greenlight Pinellas calls for addressing those complaints right away. The next step would be to add more buses and more routes, which would dramatically improve wait-time. The goal is to allow buses to run every 15 minutes on major routes and every 30 to 60 minutes on “supporting” routes.  

Expanded bus service would also be available to Tampa International Airport, Westshore and downtown Tampa.

Another key part of the plan calls for eliminating the current centralized hub system and switching to a decentralized grid system.

Under the current hub system, buses are funneled through large station terminals, such as Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg. A grid system would do away with this, making it possible for most transfers to take place at regular bus stops along designated city streets.

“This is truly about remaking our entire bus system so it doesn’t take two or three hours to get somewhere and people can get to work or school on time and then get home again without worrying about whether the buses will be running,” says Mike Meidel, director of Pinellas County Economic Development

Adding light rail

Greenlight Pinellas also calls for a light rail passenger line to connect St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Largo and Clearwater. Sixteen rail line transit stops are planned for along the route, including stops at major employment centers like Gateway and Carillon in St. Petersburg, and at points along East Bay Drive, Roosevelt Boulevard, Bryan Dairy Road and the Ulmerton Road corridor in Largo.

“This is not about linking St. Petersburg to Clearwater, it’s about allowing people to commute to work, school or recreation at various stops along the rail line,” says Meidel. “Driving from south to north county can be a hassle with the traffic.  Getting on a train and having a relaxing ride without worrying about constantly hitting the brakes would be a big benefit.”

Tom Morrisette, president of the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “A transportation system that moves people around quickly and conveniently is something major employers tell us they are looking for.  The plan holds enormous opportunities for us.”

Eventually a light rail line would run across the Howard Frankland Bridge to connect Pinellas with Hillsborough County. For Mercedes Sanchez Van Woerkom, managing director of equity research at Raymond James,  that’s good news.

“Many of the people I hire live in South Tampa,” says Sanchez Van Woerkom. “Going over the bridges to get to work can be a nightmare for them with all of the traffic. A mass transit system that eliminates the need for a car would absolutely be a benefit.”  

Attracting millennials 

Economic development leaders also see the Greenlight plan as a way to brand Tampa Bay as an attractive place to live, work and play, especially for millennials.

“We’re involved in a game of economic competitiveness on a national and global scale,” says Stuart Rogel, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership. “Everyone is looking to enhance their communities’ ability to attract both the young, creative talent and the companies that hire them.”  

Adding more roads won’t solve the problem, says Rogel. A transportation initiative that gives people options and makes it easier to get around is the answer.

“Young creative workers and budding entrepreneurs tend to go to school in big metro areas and they’re used to operating without a vehicle,” says Meidel. “They’re looking for that in any city they move to.”

In addition, says Meidel, avoiding a car payment by using public transportation gives both young professionals and young families more disposable income to spend on travel, recreation and other activities.

Building a light rail line could also fuel a boom in new development and re-development.

Greenlight Pinellas advocates envision the growth of retail, office, entertainment venues and apartments or condos around light rail transit stops.  

This type of residential and commercial growth would make it possible to create a new type of transit-oriented community, one that is urban and walkable, where people could walk or take public transit to the office, entertainment and  back home, says Rogel. He points to cities like Charlotte, NC., as an example where this is already happening.  

“Charlotte’s first rail line opened in 2007 and since then the city has seen about $2 billion in investment along transit stops and about 10,000-square-feet of new development,” says Rogel.

Even though this type of major economic development may take a decade or more to evolve, it’s important to set the plan in motion now, advocates say.

“Research tells us the vast majority of millennials and also a growing number of baby boomers want options so they don’t have to be dependent on a car,” says Rogel.  “We need to invest in a comprehensive transit initiative to make that happen.”

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about innovative businesses, communities and individuals that showcase the creativity, talent and diversity of Tampa Bay. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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