Express buses first step

Longer, faster rides with fewer but fancier stops are contemplated.

Published July 2, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Consultants Wednesday unveiled the first-phase plan for speedier bus service through the heart of St. Petersburg, and rapid transit between downtown and Central Plaza could be in place three years from now, bus company officials believe.

A year after that, the route could be extended to the Gulf Beaches, they said.

Bus Rapid Transit, known simply as BRT, essentially would provide express buses that make fewer stops, use special stations in busy areas and carry the capability to make green lights last a few seconds longer to get through intersections.

BRT would be a supplemental service, rather than replacing regular service.

Wednesday's meeting at the Sunshine Center is the first of several public gatherings consultants have scheduled during the next few months to air BRT plans.

Some other transit developments also emerged:

* St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner has been added to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board, giving the city three members on the 15-member body. Karl Nurse and City Council member John Bryan are the others.* The board indicated it would like to act more quickly to provide more frequent service on Route 4, which serves St. Petersburg from Pinellas Point to Gandy Boulevard. The county's fourth-busiest route with an estimated 860,000 riders yearly, it is scheduled to begin all-day 15-minute service in September 2007. The board would like to move the change up to June 2007.* The board also wants to move Route 18's scheduled Sunday service improvements from September 2007 to June 2007.

The first BRT phase, targeting 2009 as the start-up year, is proposed to run on First avenues N and S, with a likely hook south around Bayfront Center, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and Bayfront Medical Center, according to maps of the proposed route.

Other proposed stations include Williams Park, the developing "arts district" near Seventh Street, Tropicana Field and Historic Kenwood. Central Plaza has the potential for a park-and-ride facility, said Alan Danaher, project manager for Kittelson and Associates, the Orlando-based consultant firm.

Precise locations will be determined later, and more stations may be added.

Too many stops could defeat the purpose of an express bus; however, developing business districts could benefit from an extras stop or two.

"We are trying to strike a balance," Danaher said.

Some new stations may be designed with their neighborhoods in mind. For example, consultants showed a Chihuly option, named for the glass artist, that could be the arts district stop.

The next public meeting, which will be in August, will feature discussion about BRT extension beyond Central Plaza.

Three options are on the table: to Tyrone Mall and possibly on to Madeira Beach; to Treasure Island via the Treasure Island Causeway; or to St. Pete Beach via Pasadena Avenue and Corey Causeway.

Nurse said he will argue for the Tyrone Mall option extended to Madeira Beach.

"It's a longer run and it connects with more things," Nurse said. For example, the Bay Pines VA Medical Center is on the way.

Danaher, the consultant, said he didn't want to specify an estimated project cost, saying analyses and funding sources remain to be completed and identified.

But Nurse said he thinks the entire project will be relatively inexpensive.

"We can get into it for $15-million," he said. "Having said that, it is it entirely likely we'll get some help on the stations from private enterprise. That way the station becomes an asset to their property."