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    Will the county support a rail?

    Projections have thousands riding a monorail daily, but first officials have to sell it to residents - and get the money.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 23, 2003


    If Pinellas County were to build an elaborate monorail, more than 45,000 people would ride it every day, a county consultant says.

    Those numbers are high enough for the county to keep pursuing plans to build a monorail or similar elevated train, says the consultant.

    Even so, Pinellas will face stiff competition if county officials decide to pursue federal grant money for building the rail system. And the early numbers show several other areas could have more riders.

    "I think the ridership numbers are good and show the project is feasible," said Brian Smith, county planning director. "Now the question is . . . is this what we want to do?"

    County residents will have a chance to answer that question at a series of five public workshops in St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Planners will get comments from the public and share information about possible routes, where stations could be built and whether to build a monorail or other kind of light rail.

    "We need to make the case before the public and gauge the public's acceptance of these kinds of concepts," said Steve Spratt, county administrator.

    The county's transportation planning board has used a $2.4-million grant to hire the Tampa consultant, Grimail Crawford Inc., to help prepare for the possible bid for federal funding.

    At $20-million to $45-million per mile, the estimates Grimail Crawford is using, a 37-mile route would cost $740-million to $1.6-billion.

    County officials hope that they could get federal funds for half the cost. That would leave Pinellas paying the other half, possibly by asking voters to pass a new penny sales tax for transit.

    Spratt said he is encouraged by the new ridership numbers, but "not necessarily convinced." The numbers that the county's consultant delivered this month are still preliminary. They were developed using a computer program approved by federal transportation agencies.

    Anywhere from 21,000 to 54,000 people would ride a rail system each day, the preliminary numbers say.

    The numbers vary depending on the route of the rail, how often the trains run and how much each ride costs. The consultant said that if the county built the longest route, running from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater, with a spur running north to Countryside, more than 45,000 people would ride each day.

    Tourists could increase that number by 10 to 20 percent, says the consultant.

    In addition to building an elevated rail system, the county also would add more express bus service. Putting the train and bus together could mean an extra 20,000 bus riders each day.

    But are those numbers high enough? Grimail Crawford says they "compare favorably" with other cities working on similar projects. But the firm's own chart shows Pinellas' projected riders per mile on the low end compared to 10 other cities.

    "There are probably 150 places in the country that are putting together proposals like this, and the federal government is probably only going to be able to fund about 30," said Ed Mierzejewski, director of the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research. "You have to be able to present a pretty compelling case or you're not going to be able to be there in terms of funding."

    But Grimail Crawford says its numbers are conservative. It didn't count the tourism numbers in comparing Pinellas' ridership to other cities. Nor has it calculated the extra riders if the state brings its planned high-speed rail line to Pinellas, or extra riders because of special events, such as the Grand Prix and Devil Rays games.

    It's also important to remember, Mierzejewski said, that even though 45,000 people riding a train sounds like a lot, it's roughly the same number who drive a busy six-lane road each day.

    "Don't expect that it's dramatically going to reduce congestion," he said.

    But advocates say that rail could help keep congestion from worsening. And it could have side benefits, such as reducing air pollution and prompting redevelopment along the rail line.

    "It's going to be really important to keep that in mind," Mierzejewski said. "If you're going to spend a billion dollars, you want that to be part of a program that's going to promote some of the land use objectives you have for the county."

    Workshops on rail

    Pinellas County's transportation planners will host a series of workshops in St. Petersburg and Clearwater to provide information about a proposed elevated rail system. They also will hear comments from the public.

    Each workshop will be 5-7:30 p.m., with presentations at 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.

    The dates are:

    Wednesday -- Mirror Lake Library, community room, 280 Fifth St. N, downtown St. Petersbur

    March 3 -- Harborview Center, meeting rooms 2 and 3, 300 Cleveland St., Clearwater

    March 5 -- Science Center of Pinellas County, Discovery Center, 7701 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg

    March 6 -- Countryside High School, Media Center, 3000 State Road 580, Clearwater

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