After more than a year of quiet discussions between local officials and transportation experts, the conversation about public transportation in Pinellas is about to get broader and louder. An ambitious proposal to expand bus service and build light rail in Florida's most densely populated county is ready for a vigorous public debate, and that discussion must include everyone. A modern transit system is critical to Pinellas' economic future and quality of life, and there should be time to make adjustments and build broad public support before a voter referendum.
A project advisory committee has been working for months on a $4 million transit study paid for by state and federal grants that offers a promising vision. The Pinellas bus system, which is experiencing record ridership even with limited routes and declining property tax revenue, would be expanded by 70 percent. A 24-mile light rail system with 16 stations would be built between downtown St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Voters would be asked as early as next year to pay for the transit plan with a 1 cent sales tax, and the existing property tax now dedicated to the bus system would be repealed.
In several ways, Pinellas benefits from the experience in Hillsborough, where voters in 2010 rejected a sales tax increase to improve bus service and build a light rail line. Hillsborough had not completed an important alternative analysis study before its referendum; the Pinellas study already is complete. Hillsborough did not have its rail route or cost nailed down before the vote; Pinellas' rail route and cost already is clearer and will be pinned down well before the referendum. And while Hillsborough's plan called only for a sales tax increase, Pinellas would eliminate an existing property tax in exchange for raising the sales tax. The clarity of the transit plan and the tax swap should make the proposal more attractive to voters.
Yet it won't be an easy sell. Despite the county's clogged roads and obvious need for better transit options, the tea party crowd already is organizing opposition. And there are plenty of questions to be answered as Pinellas residents evaluate the proposal. Among them:
* Is this the best route for light rail? The proposed line stretches from downtown Clearwater south along a CSX freight corridor, east through Largo along East Bay Drive, through the Gateway area, south to Pinellas Park and then along Interstate 275 into downtown St. Petersburg. Supporters say projected ridership studies support the route and that rail would steer development into areas such as Clearwater and Largo. But that argument is not as convincing when the route runs along the interstate in St. Petersburg.
* What are the benefits to North Pinellas residents if the rail line stops in Clearwater? The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority points to expanded bus routes and would aim for buses along major routes to arrive every 15 minutes. But in the long term, rail would have to stretch further north.
* What is the potential for connecting the rail line to a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays and running it across Tampa Bay to Hillsborough County? Any Pinellas line would be expected to stop at a stadium in downtown St. Petersburg or the Gateway area. A separate study is under way for the construction of a new Howard Frankland Bridge that would include room for a rail line. While not part of the Pinellas package, rail in Pinellas or Hillsborough would have to connect to create a regional system.
This is a thoughtful proposal for mass transit in the nation's largest metropolitan area without a system. But it can be improved upon, and the details of the plan can be found at www.PinellasOnTrack.com. This is only the start of a vigorous public discussion, and the success of a voter referendum in 2013 or 2014 will depend on accepting suggestions and building consensus throughout Pinellas in the months to come.