Pinellas expects to break ground on region’s first BRT system

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority officials expect to break ground late this year on the Central Avenue bus rapid transit system, the Tampa Bay region’s first real-world test of commuter appetite in BRT service.

PSTA Chief Executive Officer Brad Miller says the agency plans to complete design on the 11-mile route linking downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach and secure approximately $20.4 million in Federal Transit Authority funding late this year. From there, the plan is to start construction of stations and infrastructure improvements for the system before the start of 2020 and the have BRT in operation in 2021.

The system, which has a total project cost of $41 million including state and local money, could be the first segment in a potential regional network that officials from Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas are discussing.

“This project has a lot of interest across the region,” Miller says. “We probably have as many presentations about our project in Hillsborough, where they just passed the sales tax to have funding to implement projects like this in coming years, as in Pinellas. This can be a catalyst for a whole regionwide system, one that can go along the interstate connecting St. Pete to Tampa and Pasco County.

While the route carries the Central Avenue name, the stretch between downtown and the beaches will actually run west along one-way First Avenue North and east along one-way First Avenue South. In the downtown area, there will also be stations at Tropicana Field, USF- St. Pete, the St. Pete College Cultural Arts Center and Bayfront Health St. Petersburg/Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

In Chicago, Cleveland, and other metropolitan areas, redevelopment frequently occurs along BRT corridors in the form of transit-oriented developments, mixed-use residential and commercial pedestrian-friendly developments at or near a BRT station.

Local officials want to see where that type of development might be most appropriate along the Central Avenue BRT corridor. The PSTA and Forward Pinellas, the county’s metropolitan planning agency, have secured a $1.2 million federal grant to fund a study on the potential for transit-oriented developments along the corridor and the policy tools to help promote them.

“It is pretty common for governmental agencies to look at the land use when they are planning for a premium transit investment,” says Forward Pinellas Planning Division Manager Rodney Chatman. “We want to develop a land use vision for that Central corridor with the BRT as a focus. We will look at what that vision is and what kind of changes we would need to make to our zoning and land-use regulations to support bus rapid transit. We want to zero in on those areas where the market will support higher development densities and intensities and then we will calibrate our land development codes and comprehensive plan to enable that intensification.”

As for how the rubber meets the road, Miller describes it as a “hybrid” BRT system where buses traveling along Central Avenue do not have a dedicated travel lane, but share the center-lane with turning vehicles. They will also have technology time traffic signals to their real-time progress along the route to cut down on travel time.

Stations will be farther apart -- about one-mile instead of 1/8 of a mile -- and buses will run every 15 minutes. The vehicles will have a more sleek design than standard PSTA buses and will offer free WiFi. Passengers will also purchase tickets at a vending machine before boarding.

Miller says the PSTA expects to draw commuters and tourists to a system linking two “major economic engines” of the region, downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches. Still, the plan to run the system down Gulf Boulevard has sparked some public opposition during St. Pete Beach City Council meetings.

For more information on the Central Avenue BRT system visit the PSTA BRT web page and the Federal Transit Authority project page.

Here are links to web sites for the PSTA and Forward Pinellas.

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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.