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Beaches would cut cost of burying wires

To save millions, a plan to bury nearly all the utility wires along Gulf Boulevard would be cut by about 40 percent.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003

Beach leaders have agreed to scale down the ambitious vision for Gulf Boulevard, hoping to make the project easier to fund and more palatable to the County Commission.

The leaner version of the Gulf Boulevard Improvement Program calls for burying utility lines along only key portions of the boulevard, plus all points where the utility lines and stoplight wires traverse the street itself. The "streetscaping" elements of the plan -- from landscaped medians to mile markers to benches for the trolley stops -- would continue as planned.

The beaches and the county originally hoped to hide utility wires along the entire 21.6-mile stretch of Gulf Boulevard, from Pass-a-Grille to Clearwater. The new plan would bury the lines on about 40 percent of the strip.

It also would cost about $46.2-million. That's less than two-thirds of the previous estimate of $73.9-million.

"The way we think is: Something is better than nothing," said J.J. Beyrouti, the mayor of Redington Shores, who also is president of the Barrier Islands Governmental Council, made up of representatives from all the beach towns except Clearwater.

The proposal also includes a funding pledge from the beaches: If the County Commission pays the costs of burying utility lines, each city and town on the beach will pay for the landscaping and other amenities planned for the street itself.

That element of the plan would need to be approved by individual city and town commissions.

The recommendation will be presented to the County Commission on Tuesday. It was approved Thursday by the Gulf Boulevard Improvement Program Undergrounding and Beautification Committee, made up of representatives from the county and the beaches.

The committee's recommendation includes no advice on where the County Commission should find funding for its portion of the project, an estimated $28-million.

The funding source getting the most attention is a new gas tax, which would generate money not only for Gulf Boulevard, but also for other projects planned around the county. The County Commission will decide by July whether to use a gas tax to fund Gulf Boulevard.

County Commissioner John Morroni pointed out at the committee meeting that the beaches are now expecting the county to pay for two-thirds of the project's cost. Originally the beaches had discussed splitting the costs in half.

But St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield said those discussions occurred before a gas tax was mentioned as a funding source. Because everyone, including people on the beaches, might pay for the county's portion through a gas tax, Bonfield said, the county should pay a larger chunk.

County Administrator Steve Spratt said he doesn't "want to underestimate the potential problems" of trying to plan a project among 12 different governments: the county and 11 cities.

"We would certainly need to try to sit down with the cities," Spratt said. "It can all bog down in acrimony."

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