MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
Several beach towns along Gulf Boulevard are looking for revenue to bury their utility lines without having to wait for county funding.
Because of the county's slow movement on the Gulf Boulevard beautification plan, some beach communities aren't waiting for the county and are looking for ways to bury their utility lines on their own.
They haven't given up hope that the county will fund the project, but they're beginning to have their doubts.
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm not holding my breath," said R.B. Johnson, a commissioner in Indian Rocks Beach, one of several beach towns Tuesday that had items on burying utility lines on their meeting agendas.
It's been almost a year since a beautification committee made up of representatives from the county and the beaches announced that a scaled-down version of the project would cost $46.2-million. An earlier estimate for the extensive improvements to Gulf Boulevard was $73.9-million.
The leaner version of the program called for burying utility lines along only key portions of the corridor, 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 shelters for the trolley stops - would continue to be financed by the municipalities.
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.
However, the county is still looking for a source of funding for the burial project. "It was always envisioned that a dedicated gas tax would have to be secured to get the project done," County Administrator Steve Spratt said Tuesday.
Last year, commissioners considered raising the gas tax by as much as 6 cents per gallon but backed away in October when public opposition grew and the county could not reach a consensus with Pinellas' 24 municipalities on how to share the additional revenue. Some of that anticipated revenue would have helped pay to bury power, cable and telephone lines along Gulf Boulevard.
So, until a funding source becomes available, the project is on hold, Spratt said.
Indian Shores isn't waiting. The town decided to go ahead and bury its utility lines along Gulf Boulevard next year when workers begin tearing up the road to lay pipes for reclaimed water and to improve the road with sidewalks and drainage. Except for a couple of side streets, the 2.6-mile stretch of the boulevard is the only road in Indian Shores.
Council members are researching funding sources to pay for the $3.6-million project. "We're definitely planning on doing it," said Indian Shores Finance Director Betty Doster. "We've talked with banks and know what our options are, but still haven't put the final package together."
Now, Indian Rocks Beach is exploring burying its wires along Gulf Boulevard from Walsingham Road to the city's southern limit. That section of the road, which is part of the road project in Indian Shores, also will be torn up next year.
Indian Rocks Beach commissioners wrote Pinellas County Chairwoman Susan Latvala last month, asking that the county fund the $1.67-million undergrounding project. The letter said that since Indian Rocks Beach contributes "extraordinary revenue" to Pinellas County, the county should consider picking up the tab.
So far, Latvala has not written back to the commissioners.
North Redington Beach already is in the process of burying its utility lines on its side streets. But the town is holding out for the county to pay for burying the lines on Gulf Boulevard.
So is Redington Shores, though the town is talking about burying utility lines on residential streets.
"We'll tackle Gulf Boulevard later, if they're not going to do anything," Redington Shores Mayor J.J. Beyrouti said.