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Dispute arises over proposed bus link

The manager of a bus line wants to connect St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach but says he faces too many restrictions.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000


ST. PETE BEACH -- Pinellas County has its sponge docks in Tarpon Springs, its waterfront restaurants in Clearwater, its museums in downtown St. Petersburg, its beaches in the small cities that line the coast.

What it lacks, anyone who has studied Pinellas tourism will tell you, is a transportation link that ties the attractions together.

"We are really like an amusement park, where you have all these fun things you can do," said Mark Cornish, vice president of tourism and publications at the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, "but the transportation isn't there. We don't have the infrastructure."

The St. Petersburg chamber thinks it is close to starting something with help from a private bus line. But now the general manager of that company, which offered to launch a route from downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach, says the beach city has been uncooperative and is jeopardizing the new venture.

"It always seems to me that St. Pete Beach is just fighting to keep their heads afloat," said Ted Padlo, general manager of First Class Coach Martz Group, which runs the First Class Coach/Gray Line bus service. "Whatever tourists get on the beach, it sounds like the chain-link fence goes up, and they (beach officials) just don't want them leaving."

Padlo's troubles with St. Pete Beach puzzle City Manager Carl Schwing, who says Padlo never brought up his concerns when he met with the city more than a week ago. Schwing also points to a resolution passed unanimously Tuesday by the St. Pete Beach City Commission, a resolution that accepts the bus line's shuttle into St. Pete Beach and even establishes a bus stop on city right of way.

"I think it's indicative that the commission does not feel that way because they passed this resolution to try and promote this line," Schwing said.

Still, Padlo views the meeting he had with St. Pete Beach and representatives from the city's own subsidized bus line, Bay Area Taxi Service, as an unnecessary intrusion into the affairs of his private-sector business.

He also finds fault in the very resolution that supports his shuttle service, as it creates some restrictions Padlo is unsure he will accept.

"This is not the St. Pete Beach marketing department," Padlo said of his company. "This is First Class Coach."

Those anxious to see the shuttle, which operated for only two days before the city objected and Padlo agreed to meet with Schwing, fear the dispute represents a deeper problem of convincing Pinellas municipalities to work together.

"Transportation around the county shouldn't have to be so difficult," said Anita Treiser, marketing director for the city of St. Petersburg.

For a $10 round-trip ticket, the shuttle would transport passengers from The Pier in downtown St. Petersburg, over the Corey Causeway and into St. Pete Beach. It would make a handful of stops at several Gulf Boulevard hotels, dropping off St. Petersburg visitors who want to visit the beaches and picking up beach hotel customers who want to visit museums or go shopping in downtown St. Petersburg.

The bus would come back to St. Petersburg via the Pinellas Bayway and would make eight round trips daily.

"From a visitor's perspective, they want to experience everything that the destination has to offer," said Carole Ketterhagen, executive director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Schwing, however, believes the disagreement is a misunderstanding. The city's concerns with a new bus line to St. Pete Beach are understandable, he said.

When Schwing first learned about the First Class Coach/Gray Line shuttle about five or six weeks ago, he initially was concerned about the small business community's reaction in St. Pete Beach. He also was worried about the city's contractual arrangement with BATS, which has provided public transportation in St. Pete Beach for about 16 years.

"I knew small business was going to want some assurance that we're getting the same number from St. Pete that we're sending in there," Schwing said.

Then about two weeks ago, Schwing learned that First Class Coach/Gray Line started its shuttle service. "The shuttle started without even having a discussion with the city of St. Pete Beach."

Because the city's contractual arrangement with BATS allows only that company to use bus stops and city right of way, Schwing wanted to meet with the shuttle company right away.

Padlo points out that because he is a private business, he can stop at private hotels as long as he has the owner's permission.

"My attitude is, it's really none of their concern," Padlo said. "If I want to run it, I'll run it."

Schwing agrees on that point, although he believes the company should want to have a good relationship with the city. That includes being responsive to the city's concerns.

"We were given some assurances from the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce that, of course, to be a good partner, we have to have people going to St. Pete Beach as well as downtown," Schwing said.

The city manager devised eight points -- Padlo calls them demands -- that were important to St. Pete Beach in its discussions with First Class Coach/Gray Line. The points were folded into the resolution that commissioners approved.

While First Class Coach/Gray Line does not need permission to stop at private hotels, it does need approval for a bus stop specifically requested by the city -- at the intersection of Corey Avenue and Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach's downtown.

Padlo is bothered that St. Pete Beach is touting a resolution it passed to allow Padlo to stop along Corey Avenue -- a stop that Padlo could live without.

"There were a couple issues that really left a bitter taste in my mouth," Padlo said.

Among the restrictions in the resolution:

The shuttle will be marked "Express to St. Pete Beach" on its way to the beach and "Express to downtown St. Petersburg" while traveling to St. Petersburg.

Padlo says the city cannot tell him what signs he puts on his privately owned busses. He also believes he cannot call the shuttle an "express" because it stops several times and does not meet the definition of an express shuttle.

A record of how many people take the bus to St. Pete Beach and to St. Petersburg will be maintained. Padlo questioned whether this job should be the role of his privately paid bus drivers.

First Class Coach/Gray Line will promote BATS as a way to travel throughout St. Pete Beach.

"They want us to promote BATS, and then no one's promoting the shuttle," Padlo said. "Everybody wants it; nobody wants to do anything to help out."

First Class Coach/Gray Line is to promote Corey Avenue, Dolphin Village and Pass-a-Grille shopping. Padlo said he agreed to make a bus stop at the intersection of Corey Avenue and Gulf Boulevard "to be P.C.," meaning politically correct.

First Class Coach/Gray Line will provide any schedule changes to the city before implementation.

Padlo believes this restriction is unfair because, as a private businessman spending $350 to run the route, he needs to "tinker" with the routes from time to time. The success or failure of the shuttle will depend on the market for it, he said.

Padlo plans to meet with representatives from the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce this week. He plans to re-launch the shuttle service April 1, though he admits he is uncertain about the details of taking the route through St. Pete Beach.

Schwing said St. Pete Beach just wanted to be part of the discussion process. City officials were particularly troubled when they saw marketing materials from First Class Coach/Gray Line that seemed to focus on the leg of the trip that takes people to downtown St. Petersburg, not the part that brings them to the beaches.

"We have the hotels, we have the beach, and for St. Petersburg to simply gain the benefit of visitors from St. Pete Beach going to downtown with nobody from downtown coming to St. Pete Beach" seems worth questioning, Schwing said.

The county's Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is working on a beach trolley system of its own that would connect the beaches, from Clearwater to St. Pete Beach. It also would link into mainland transportation systems.

But that system is probably 10 months to a year away, said Treiser, St. Petersburg's marketing director.

Treiser said she is just anxious to see visitors have direct transportation between St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach, and the private sector opportunity seems like a good one. Right now the only other option is a cab ride, which costs about $18 each way.

"I chuckle at that, that anyone's going to benefit more," Treiser said. "I think it's going to be mutually advantageous, and it's long overdue."

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