PSTA working with St. Pete Beach to resolve BRT project misunderstanding

Abhishek Dayal, PSTA’s director of project management, presents an update April 24 on Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project.

ST. PETERSBURG — PSTA is moving ahead with its Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project that would link downtown St. Petersburg with the Gulf beaches. The agency also is taking steps to repair its relationship with St. Pete Beach.

Abhishek Dayal, director of project management, updated the board of directors April 24 on the latest developments with the project. He said the design phase is now 30 percent complete. Work continues to reach the 60 percent milestone, he said.

Dayal is optimistic that PSTA will receive a Small Starts grant from the Federal Transit Administration later this year.

“We’re on target for that to happen,” he said.

The FTA has given the grant a medium-high rating, he said. He also has been in communication by phone with the FTA, which he said, was “pleased with our progress.”

PSTA has been working on this project for about 10 years. The proposed route represents PSTA’s highest ridership corridor, he said. The BRT project would serve destinations along the Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, South Pasadena and St. Pete Beach.

Dayal also talked about recent media coverage on a misunderstanding with the city of St. Pete Beach. The city had threatened to pass a resolution opposing the BRT project. The city also expressed displeasure at being included as one of the funding partners.

Dayal said St. Pete Beach had been a funding partner in the original plan, but that plan has since been amended.

PSTA CEO Brad Miller and board Chair Janet Long attended an April 9 St. Pete Beach Commission meeting to talk to the city about its objections that also includes opposition to the use of 60-foot articulated buses. At that meeting, St. Pete Beach decided not to pass a resolution but instead directed its city manager, Alex Rey, to work with PSTA to resolve the problems.

Dayal said he had met with Rey and they were developing an agreement.

Board member Charlie Justice, who also serves on the Pinellas County Commission, asked about future public meetings about the project and expressed concern about the dispute with St. Pete Beach.

Long said 29 meetings had been held with the city’s elected officials and staff, including PSTA staff attending meetings with the city commission, but still there were misunderstandings. She pointed to a comment made at a past public hearing that had left a “deep undermining of trust.” She said staff was working to repair the relationship.

Miller said the original plan had called for funding from St. Pete Beach. Then a plan was hatched that called for a funding swap. But during that time, the city’s leadership changed hands.

He said the FTA had been notified that St. Pete Beach was not a funding partner and the financial plan had been changed. He said it was likely that the plan would change again before the project was finished.

Staff also is addressing the size of the buses.

Miller said staff believes smaller vehicles might be able to handle the ridership. Not only is the service from St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach used by tourists, 40% of the workers on St. Pete Beach are using it as well.

Miller said if ridership proves to be an “incredible success,” they could try to renegotiate the use of a different vehicle. But for now, the plan would be to start with smaller vehicles.

Miller said this was a new opportunity for PSTA to refresh the relationship with a new city manager. He’s optimistic an agreement would be reached.

“The problem is trust and respect,” he said.

PSTA has until May 14 to reach an agreement with Rey to present to the commission.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.