ST. PETE BEACH — Just when City Manager Alex Rey thought he had an agreement worked out with PSTA officials over how the county transportation agency’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit program will fit St. Pete Beach, commissioners decided to hold another public hearing to vet out a new set of issues.
Spurred on by Commissioner Melinda Pletcher, who voiced adamant objection to the interlocal agreement negotiated by Rey and PSTA, commissioners decided to devote a work session to the topic, Tuesday, May 28, 4 p.m., before the regular City Commission meeting at 6 p.m.
During the Tuesday, May 14, City Commission meeting, City Hall chambers were filled by those who oppose PSTA in general and its proposed Bus Rapid Transit Project in particular.
Some critical of PSTA said there is not enough ridership to warrant BRT service in the beach city, while others from South Pasadena and St. Petersburg attended to voice objection to BRT in their area as unnecessary.
In particular, Pletcher said the city has repeatedly asked for ridership counts, which have been promised but never provided. Local opponents assert those ridership numbers could help determine if BRT service is needed in St. Pete Beach.
Mayor Al Johnson and Commissioner Ward Friszolowski both said there is a lot of incorrect information being spread about the city and its attempts to negotiate a contract with PSTA.
Johnson noted there was never going to be a reduction of travel lanes along Gulf Boulevard or in St. Pete Beach, a falsehood some people keep promoting.
“The lanes that are going to be removed are going to be in St. Petersburg and some possibly in South Pasadena, but I am not sure whether that’s done yet or not,” the mayor said.
Friszolowski added he got calls that there were going to be dedicated lanes to PSTA on St. Pete Beach;
“That was never part of the plan; it’s not part of the plan,” he said.
The issue was listed as an action item ready for commission vote at the May 14 meeting.
Pletcher told fellow commissioners she was adamant that the commission move the PSTA item to a workshop.
She said there is “a lot of strong language in this agreement that the commission is going to be bound by and future commissions are going to be bound by.”
“I just don’t think that at our last meeting, when we said you guys get together and come up with something, I didn’t think it was going to come back as an Action Item,” she added.
“I thought we were going to have a discussion about what you found out during that mediation or compromise. We went from not supporting BRT to this. It’s very complicated and having it as an Action Item is not in the city’s best interest,” she said.
However, Mayor Al Johnson explained the direction commissioners gave the city manager was to give him 30 days to put something together and that’s what they did.
“I assumed it was going to be a contract,” Johnson said.
He added there is some wording “that needs to be tightened.”
“The public has not had an opportunity to publicly vet this,” Pletcher said.
The mayor agreed the “language needed to be tightened; the agreement has all the items the city requested, which is no 60-foot buses, but the language needs to be tightened up.”
Particularly because of the input from residents, he added, “a workshop makes sense to me.”
City Manager Rey explained city officials were trying to form a global agreement that addressed all the issues they have been having with PSTA.
During talks with PSTA, Rey said, the city and PSTA tried to put in writing everything on the table and address it comprehensively; the intent was to come up with solutions to address the concerns that the commission conveyed.
Bus Rapid Transit in St. Pete Beach “didn’t include closing lanes and that has never been in their plans,” said Rey, in addressing misconceptions. In addition, proposed agreement codifies that there will be no funding on behalf of St. Pete Beach, an item the city wanted clarified and spelled out in an agreement.
In earlier grant documents, PSTA suggested St. Pete Beach would fund $1.5 million of the BRT budget. At the request of the city, PSTA later corrected their proposed grant budget analysis.
Rey noted Gulf Boulevard is a state road and PSTA can operate 60-foot buses along Gulf Boulevard at any time, because it is controlled by FDOT and not the city.
However, the city manager explained, in this agreement PSTA agrees to only use 40-foot buses for at least three years; after that time they could switch to a larger vehicle, but only based on ridership.
Through this agreement, “we are getting a right we currently don’t have, which is to prohibit larger buses in town,” the city manager advised.
In addressing another item in the agreement, Commissioner Pletcher said she is vehemently opposed to permitting PSTA to locate a bus transfer station south of the Don CeSar along Carillo Avenue.
The city manager explained the transfer station is to provide an area where buses can turn around and proceed north, as well as to provide a bus driver break area.
In addition, Rey said under the agreement PSTA will no longer provide bus service into Pass-A-Grille; the city will contract with an electric microbus service to provide public transportation south of the Don CeSar. Riders would transfer from the PSTA bus to the mini-trolley at the Cabrillo transfer point.
Pletcher argued allowing PSTA to put up a bus shelter would “give away a very important, significant, piece of real estate. We’re looking to put a bus transfer station on a pristine prime waterfront.”
“I thought negotiations were going to be a little more thoughtful than what we ended up with,” she added.
Rey explained he walked through the area south of the Don CeSar to find a property upon which to place the PSTA bus shelter and that was the most suitable spot.
Commissioners decided to hold another public meeting on issues surrounding PSTA and its proposed BRT service, as well as address concerns about the contract hammered out by Rey and the PSTA.