ST PETE BEACH — The war of words between PSTA, the county agency that wants to bring Bus Rapid Transit into St. Pete Beach, and city officials got even more heated during a special City Commission meeting June 13, fueled in part by a letter from St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman that island officials viewed as insulting and threatening.
Commissioner Melinda Pletcher characterized Kriseman’s letter as threatening St. Pete Beach with unilateral action by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and “messing with our community.”
She took exception to a portion of Kriseman’s letter suggesting “if we don’t come up with an interlocal agreement, they’re going to take 60-feet buses to Don CeSar.”
Kriseman’s letter makes no mention of an agreement hammered out between St. Pete Beach City Manager Alex Rey and PSTA officials to reduce the size of Bus Rapid Transit vehicles to 40 feet along Gulf Boulevard and terminate service at a transfer station located at the county park on 46th Avenue.
According to St. Pete Beach officials, the St. Petersburg mayor’s letter suggests his city plans to adopt a resolution approving PSTA’s initial plan to use 60-foot buses and have the BRT route terminate at the Don CeSar.
St. Pete Beach City Attorney Andrew Dickman noted that Kriseman’s letter may be in reference to an earlier resolution, drafted by the beach city, that objected to Bus Rapid Transit along Gulf Boulevard.
St. Pete Beach Mayor Al Johnson said city officials did not know St. Petersburg has “apparently been working on their interlocal agreement (with PSTA). We’re working in silos,” he said.
He asked why PSTA didn’t sit down with officials from St. Pete Beach, St. Petersburg and South Pasadena.
“We want to have bus access, but we have to put a stake in the ground saying this is where we are and it’s not acceptable; let’s keep taking,” Johnson said.
“We generate second-most bed tax to Clearwater. So Mayor Kriseman is not as big a draw as we are. To ask us to bend over and let them do whatever they want is a little heavy handed,” Johnson said.
Commissioner Terry Finnerty also took exception with how the city is treated by county officials as well as neighboring St. Petersburg.
“We are treated like a stepchild in this county. They consistently think they give us everything, “she said.
Dickman said the city wasn’t aware an interlocal agreement is being negotiated between St Petersburg and PSTA, adding the three cities could discuss a trilateral agreement.
“Is there an opportunity to sit down with all three?” he said.
Commissioner Ward Friszolowski said he favors trilateral negotiations and is “confident we can work together to put together a system that can work.”
During the June 13 morning meeting, city commissioners unanimously passed a resolution asking Federal Highway Administration officials to hold off on granting PSTA a $20.36 million grant for its Bus Rapid Transit project until the transportation provider enters into an agreement with St. Pete Beach.
The resolution also encourages PSTA to sit down with all three affected cities and enter into trilateral agreement.
At an earlier June 11 night meeting, city commissioners told PSTA they want BRT buses to turn around at 75th Avenue, rather than a county park at 46th Avenue. City commissioners envisioned that PSTA buses, including BRT, would come onto the island and turn around at a bus transfer station at 75th Avenue. Local private trolley and mini-van service would then ferry passengers along Gulf Boulevard.
PSTA told city officials they must have the 46th Avenue transfer station, so buses can serve riders traveling to hotels.
At the earlier meeting, PSTA spokesperson Whitney Fox told commissioners the BRT project is designed to ease traffic congestion by taking vehicles off the road. She added BRT service needs the ridership created by traveling through the hotel district to 46th Avenue.
“Please keep in mind the dramatic impact this can have on people’s lives, especially those who work on St. Pete Beach,” she said. “The Central Avenue to St. Pete Beach route has the highest ridership of all bus service routes. We expect ridership to grow with a faster, more frequent service,” she added.
Friszolowski said he is “still not convinced the bus couldn’t stop on 75th and we have our own service.”
In explaining why the city doesn’t want BRT buses on Gulf Boulevard, Johnson said, “Those are city buses and we are not a city, we are a beach town. It’s the old build-it-and-they-will-come, and I’m not sure they will,” he added, in reference to additional ridership.
Whit Blanton, executive director with Forward Pinellas, said the county park transfer station “is a must-do for us.”
He said BRT is the top transportation project for the county, and asked commissioners to see the bigger picture and think countywide and regionally. He added, “Ridership plummets when you ask people to transfer more than once. We want to keep transfer to a minimum.”
Friszolowski said commissioners are representing people in the community.
“I’m hearing it loud and clear, people don’t want more buses on Gulf Boulevard,” he told PSTA officials.
City commissioners said there is still time to negotiate the 75th Avenue transit hub, while recognizing that Gulf Boulevard is a state road.
The resolution passed June 13 invites the PSTA to continue negotiating a reasonable interlocal agreement for BRT and related facilities and bring it to the City Commission for consideration. It also asks for joint discussions between PSTA, St. Pete Beach, St. Petersburg and South Pasadena.