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    New bus service goes hoity-toity

    Amenities such as laptop connections, reclining seats and cable news are intended to entice affluent commuters to use the service that connects Pinellas to downtown Tampa.

    By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 28, 2002


    The commute between mid Pinellas County and downtown Tampa soon will be a lot more comfortable.

    Starting in April, commuters will be able to ride the Bentley of buses on a new luxury express route connecting the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport area with downtown Tampa.

    These new coach buses likely will feature cable news, reading lights, reclining seats, more leg room and laptop connections. It's all part of a grand plan to coax higher income folks into using public transit instead of clogging heavily congested streets like Ulmerton Road.

    "A lot of these people are driving their Lexuses and BMWs to work," said Michael Siebel, director of planning for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. "Reserved parking in Hillsborough County is $80 to $100 a month. These people are spending a lot of money and may be ready at this point to say, 'I'll try it.' "

    The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority calls its new 300X bus route a "premium transit service" and will be the region's third such dual-county express route. All three routes cost $1.50 per ride, each way.

    The 100X runs from the Gateway Mall area of St. Petersburg, across the Gandy Bridge, over the Crosstown Expressway and then into the Marion Street Transit Parkway in downtown Tampa. The 200X runs from the east end of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, across the Courtney Campbell Parkway, to the West Shore area and then to downtown Tampa.

    The 300X will pick up riders from two Pinellas locations: a park-and-ride lot planned for the corner of Starkey Road and Ulmerton Road and a lot near St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. The 300X then will take Interstate 275 to downtown Tampa and stop at all the exits on the Marion Street Transit Parkway. The 300X will run only during morning and evening rush hours. Weekend and extended hours will be considered after the route gains popularity, Siebel said.

    The Florida Department of Transportation and PSTA are combining funds to get the route started.

    PSTA figures on 44,000 riders per year, which will help offset the first year's estimated $365,000 operating cost. Ridership is estimated to rise to 66,000 the following year and 88,000 thereafter. It will cost $1.03-million to buy and construct the Starkey Road park and ride lot. The agency is working on a shared parking agreement with the airport. Operating costs are estimated to increase with ridership.

    Of the initial $365,000, around $66,000 would come straight from rider revenue for the first full year, according to PSTA documents. Rider revenue is expected to increase to $99,000 in the second year of operation and $132,000 in the third year. The rest of the money -- nearly $300,000 for the first year -- will be subsidized by a combination of FDOT and PSTA money. Homeowners pay property taxes to the PSTA.

    In general, public transit authorities rarely make a profit, Siebel said.

    The agency has to wait until it can order and pick up their 10 coach buses. The PSTA has recently asked the state for a special appropriation to help purchase the buses, whose total expected purchase price is $2-million, according to PSTA reports.

    Five of those buses will be used on the 100X line, the remainder will go to the 300X. Hillsborough County's transit authority runs the 200X and is responsible for replacing and upgrading its own buses. Four extra minibuses, which are included in the appropriation and have nothing to do with the 300X, will be placed into service in the northeast section of St. Petersburg.

    "This provides a unique opportunity to recruit other types of users," said David McDonald, a program planner for the Metropolitan Planning Organization. "Whether we start this route and take 100 to 150 cars off the road, will people notice that? I don't know. They should notice it after several years. . . . It's a better system."

    -- Adrienne Samuels can be reached at 445-4157 or samuels@sptimes.com.

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