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Panelists focus on Pinellas’ transportation
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Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Pinellas County transportation experts answer questions during a Sept. 24 eTownHall meeting. From left are, Brad Miller, PSTA executive director; Sarah Ward, MPO interim executive director, moderator Len Ciecieznski, Julie Ward-Bujalski, city of Dunedin Vice Mayor, MPO board member and PSTA board member, and Jeff Danner, member of the St. Petersburg City Council, chair of the PSTA board, MPO member.
CLEARWATER – Four of Pinellas County’s leading transportation experts fielded questions from the public during an hour-long eTownHall Tuesday, Sept. 24.

Subjects ran the gamut from traffic signals, sidewalks, trails, roadway expansions, bus service, light rail and taxes.

Sarah Ward, interim executive director of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, said plans were underway that consider all areas and needs countywide.

“We recognize that not one plan fits all,” she said, which is the impetus behind including a full range of options for transportation throughout Pinellas.

Julie Ward-Bujalski, city of Dunedin Vice Mayor, MPO board member and PSTA board member, talked about the outreach being done as part of Greenlight Pinellas. She said a lot of public engagement had been occurring through meetings with local organizations.

Brad Miller, executive director for Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, said he had talked to at least 100 different clubs, as had Ward-Bujalski and Jeff Danner, member of the St. Petersburg City Council, chair of the PSTA board, MPO member and the fourth panelist at the Sept. 24 eTownHall.

“People want a growing, thriving Pinellas County,” Miller said. “They want what is best for the community.”

He said people seem to understand the Greenlight plan and the need to invest in transit. Most of the questions he hears are about when the plan would be put into action, how it will be paid for with taxpayer money – ad valorem tax or sales tax.

Danner said people want more transportation options, instead of being forced to have to own cars, even multiple cars, to get to destinations.

Residents were able to ask the panel questions or make comments via the phone, a blog and Twitter. One person wanted to know if it was possible to take a bus to the airport on the weekend. The answer was no. However, Ward-Bujalski said part of the transportation plan included regional connections with Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee counties and beyond.

Miller talked about the need to expand transportation services later at night. He said that currently most buses end service at 6 p.m.

“You can get to work or a baseball game (on a bus), but you can’t get home,” he said.

The Greenlight plans calls for most buses to run to 10 p.m. and some to continue service to 2 a.m.

“It (bus service) has to be there when people need it,” he said.

He said the plan included “layers of solutions depending on needs.”

One example was to provide more express bus service to employment centers and parking lots where people could park and ride.

Ward talked about PSTA’s new Flex Routes in north county that allowed buses to deviate off their regular routes to pick up people at their residence.

“There was a real need in that area,” she said.

She said there is a great demand for service along the beaches and late night service to entertainment venues. She said people want a way to get to Pinellas County from the airport in Tampa without having to have a car.

Current plans call for a light rail system to run from Clearwater through the Gateway area to St. Petersburg and eventually on to Tampa. Ward-Bujalski said people in north county would be able to take limited stop buses to connect with rail lines.

Danner said the business community is interested in improving transportation to get their employees to work. Improved transportation would be an attraction for businesses to move to Pinellas, he said. He said transportation improvements were vital to keeping and attracting young people.

“Young people don’t want to have to have a car,” he said. “They want to get to entertainment venues and work without a car.”

In many part of the United States, social networking revolves around transit hubs – another goal of the Greenlight plan.

“We want a network of options to get to all parts of the county,” Danner said.

Len Ciecieznski, information specialist with Pinellas County Communications, moderated the event and asked the questions coming in, including one about the wisdom of spending money on light rail. Miller said the Greenlight plan is “all about creating a different type of transportation” system that could affect land use without changing the complexion of existing single-family neighborhoods.

He said over time, development around transit hubs and corridors resulted in areas where there was no need for parking lots and residents could get to where they wanted to go without having a car.

Danner said the cost to build a light rail system was estimated at between $1.5 billion and $1.7 billion, which would pay for the rail, improved buses service to get to the rail lines and operating costs for 30 years.

“This plan is not just about light rail,” Ward-Bujalski added.

She said about 35 to 45 percent of planned spending was toward the rail with the rest going to improve bus service and other transportation options, such as trolley service, which has shown to be very successful on nights and weekends. The Greenlight plan would expand the trolley service to seven days a week, providing “a lot more access to the fun stuff you want to do.”

Miller pointed out that parking was limited on the beaches and tourists were benefiting from the new PSTA beach trolley. Greenlight would expand that service as well.

“There’s not a trolley everywhere in Pinellas County, but just because there’s not doesn’t mean you don’t do it (have trolley service),” Ward-Bujalski said of a question from someone who lives outside the area planned for light rail.

She said the beauty of the Greenlight plan is to have the “right transportation in the right areas and have it all connect.”

“We’re not repurposing anyone’s community,” Danner said. “Redevelopment will occur where it needs to in underutilized areas, near employment centers and activity centers.”

He said the plan allows for about 80 percent of the county’s population to have access to transportation services.

“We’re looking at the uniqueness of a community and responding to it,” he said.

Miller took on the question about funding. He explained that PSTA currently is funded by ad valorem taxes that bring in about 50 percent of the agency’s $60 million budget. The remainder of funding comes from fares and grants from state and federal entities. About 25 percent of costs are paid for by fares, which he said is more funding than most transit systems bring in from fares.

“No system in the world is funding entirely from fares,” he said.

Pinellas County voters will have a referendum question on the November 2014 ballot asking them approve a switch from ad valorem taxes to a 1-cent sales tax to fund transportation. Miller said a penny sales tax would double the funding available from taxes, plus PSTA would still have funding from fares and grants, meaning money would be available to make big transportation improvements.

Ward answered the question about benefits to seniors by saying more money into the system would allow more services so county residents could “age in place and still get out into the community.”

Miller added that statistics show that people outlive their ability to drive by about seven years. Improved transportation system would allow seniors to still get around. Ward-Bujalski pointed out that Florida and Pinellas County has a “saturation of seniors.”

“Just because they can’t drive doesn’t mean they can’t walk and get around. This would help people keep from withering away inside their homes,” she said.

Ward answered the question of “how long will it take?” She said current plans look out to the year 2040 with phases of work tied to revenue streams. She said complex projects take time to complete, pointing to the U.S. 19 improvements that began in 2009 and are expected to be complete by 2014.

“Complex projects take a long time to build. We’re looking at phasing as effectively as we can,” she said.

Miller said Pinellas needed to make sure it had a transportation system that could serve the younger generation and their needs while preserving neighborhoods of single-family homes.

One caller asks about how the plan could improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.

“That’s a priority throughout the county,” Danner said, which he said was addressed in the transportation plan, as well as work happening now to improve safety.

Miller seems confident that the transportation plan can work in Pinellas.

“Twenty-six cities in the U.S. have a multi-modal transit system (bus and rail) and 25 of 26 are in the process of expanding,” he said.

“We need to get people to their destinations with whatever mode of transportation we can provide,” Danner said. “It’s about where you live and what you need.”

To give input on the county’s transportation plan, visit tellu­spine­llas.­com. For more information on Greenlight Pinellas, visit green­light­pinel­las.c­om.

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