Surveyed residents size up life in Pinellas
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
Pinellas County residents just love the beach.
But, oh, how they hate getting there.
In the county's first survey of its residents in several years, residents spoke loud and clear.
A clear majority, 62 percent, of the surveyed residents said the worst thing about living in Pinellas is dealing with the county's traffic and transportation problems.
New commission Chairman Karen Seel said she hears the same gripes.
"This has been consistently citizens' No. 1 concern," she said. "As they traverse around the county, they want to move swiftly and quickly."
Seel and other officials say they share a new willingness to look for solutions, even if it means addressing touchy topics such as raising taxes or improving public transportation.
"We have to do something," said Commissioner Susan Latvala. "You can't tell people to move away. So we have to look at other ways of minimizing the impact."
The survey is the first step in a broader query of residents' views. County officials asked about 250 people for their views about the performance of county government overall, about certain departments and about what they like and dislike about living in Pinellas.
Results from that study are being used to draft a larger survey of about 3,000 residents, said Laura Berkowitz, senior research manager for the county's Economic Development Department.
Because so many of the first group complained about traffic, staff members want to ask residents in the larger survey for their opinions on possible ways to improve traffic congestion and manage growth.
"We live in paradise," Berkowitz said. "It's great, but there are too many people here."
The survey also found that 27 percent of people said the beaches and the water are the best thing about living in Pinellas, while 24 percent cited the weather. Fort Desoto was cited by 24 percent as their favorite park, with Lake Seminole and Fred Howard tying for second with 12 percent.
Sixty-five percent rated Pinellas County government either "good" or "excellent."
But traffic flow was their chief gripe on another question as well. Asked to rate several county services, 59 percent said they weren't satisfied with traffic flow on county roads. Forty-six percent gave unsatisfactory marks to the remodeling permitting process, and 44 percent said the same about the tree removal permitting process.
But residents gave high marks to county emergency services, from ambulances to law enforcement, to the library system and to county parks.
Residents pointed to two linked problems as the most important issue facing Pinellas. One-third cited growth and overpopulation. Twenty percent cited transportation and traffic. Schools came third, cited by 13 percent.
"The things we know that are causing problems, by virtue of our density, it's right there," said Gay Lancaster, assistant county administrator.
But Lancaster and Latvala talked about how hard the solutions can be. Lancaster said she's seeing more and more residents opposed to widening streets, such as Starkey Road.
"It's impacting quality of life," Lancaster said. "Do you improve the quality of transportation at the expense of quality of life?"
In the past, Pinellas leaders have moved slowly on transportation. The county has the authority to levy 12 cents of tax per gallon of gas but charges only half that. Some local leaders say that Pinellas County and its 24 municipalities haven't worked together closely enough to solve traffic problems or push for state and federal transportation dollars.
Now, however, they point to signs of change:
-- In September, local elected officials and business leaders held a daylong meeting to talk about fixing transportation problems. One of the chief topics: raising the gas tax. Seel raised another possibility.
"Our philosophy has always been pay as you go," she said. "Perhaps we need to look at bonding some (road) projects so we could get some things finished."
-- Pinellas county officials are moving closer to agreement with the cities of Clearwater and St. Petersburg to let the county take over control of traffic signals countywide. Proponents say a unified system would make it easier to synchronize lights and help traffic flow.
-- In the next five years, Pinellas will get $350-million in state and federal funding to spend building overpasses, fixing medians and making other improvements on U.S. 19.
-- County transportation officials are studying the feasibility of building a light rail system. While such a system would be years in the future, the county also could get a connecting station to the state's proposed high-speed rail system. Officials also are looking at other ways to improve public transportation, from adding high-occupancy vehicle lanes to changing the structure of the county's bus authority.
"We're at a wonderful place," Latvala said. "We have commissioners willing to do some difficult things, and we have (Administrator Steve Spratt's) knowledge and expertise and lack of baggage."
But can willingness to talk translate into willingness to act?
"We are making some strides and getting some things done," Seel said. "I think we've all learned that you don't just jump into something without learning all the causes and effects. We're doing much more comprehensive transportation planning than we ever have before."
The best and worst of Pinellas County
Here's a quick look at what residents recently said they liked and didn't about living in the county.
Most cited best features
Beaches/water 27 percent
Retail/work convenience 6
Most cited worst features
Transportation/traffic 62 percent
-- Source: Pinellas County citizen survey
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