Agencies involved in mass transit in Pinellas County are moving cautiously, and correctly, in developing plans for light rail projects.
The Project Advisory Committee, which is made up of elected officials representing four agencies, agreed on a proposed rail route alternative Jan. 30. It stems from a study that examined options to implement premium transit service connecting major residential, employment and activity centers in the county.
Basically, the proposed light rail route connects Clearwater, Largo, the Greater Gateway area, Pinellas Park, and St. Petersburg in Pinellas County, with a regional connection across Tampa Bay to Hillsborough County.
The cost of the proposed project, which includes 24 miles of light rail, 16 stations, the right of way and structures, is $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion. Officials have talked about a 50 percent local funding commitment financed over 30 years. They are looking for federal, state and public private partnerships to pay the remaining balance.
Consultants and officials have emphasized that light rail plans are still in their infancy. Many levels of approval will be required at local, state and federal levels before rail projects are launched.
If all goes according to plans, final design is expected to occur between 2015 and 2017, followed by three years to construct the project, officials have said.
The agencies reached out to the public and local governments to build support for the transit project, known as the locally preferred alternative, and their efforts are making headway. Both St. Petersburg and Largo have endorsed the preferred route alternative.
Leaders in these two cities and others recognize the benefits of light rail and other enhanced forms of transit beyond mobility, such as jobs. Officials estimate that 67,000 new jobs will be created over 30 years. As seen in other areas of the country, rail transit is expected to create development and redevelopment opportunities.
Indeed, agencies have to continue to be aggressive in promoting their plans because of organized opposition to transit proposals making farfetched statements such as that the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, a stakeholder in the light project, is headed toward insolvency.
Granted, because of shrinking revenues, PSTA has had to make changes in its services but it has always presented a balanced budget. Ridership continues to increase, breaking monthly records. That shows how valuable bus service is to the county’s transportation system – as light rail eventually will be.
All local governments should get behind the rail project, with the vision that the county one day will be served by a transit system similar to those that have provided many benefits to urban areas across the country, from Honolulu to Newark.