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Transit plan arrives loaded with questions

Residents praise an alternative to cars but worry about the cost and route of the proposed system.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


A transit system to whisk riders among Clearwater Beach, Clearwater, the Carillon section of St. Petersburg, downtown St. Petersburg, the Tyrone Square Mall area and the gulf beaches sounded like a dream to people who now depend on public or alternative transportation.

"The road system out there is chaos," said Kimberly Cooper, who works at Carillon and said she beats car-driving colleagues to the office by riding her bicycle.

But many of the few-dozen people who showed up at the Metropolitan Planning Organization's public workshops in Clearwater last week and in St. Petersburg on Monday raised big questions about the project: Its estimated cost of $10-million to $100-million per mile and who would pay it; its practicality; and its effect on the neighborhoods it would pass through.

"I think Bill Gates would choke when you told him $100-million a mile," resident Earl Barrett said Monday. "I don't think anybody with a right hand to steer is going to give up driving their car and being able to take all their goodies with them wherever they go."

County planning director and MPO executive director Brian Smith said a 5-cent, local-option gasoline tax and fares paid by riders might help fund the system, but the details would be worked out later.

"The private sector might contribute to it," he said.

Besides, Smith stressed, the MPO is open to that kind of input, including the suggestion that the system is a bad idea that should be scrapped.

The reason the MPO started looking into a transit system is that it noticed how difficult it is for traffic to move north and south in Pinellas County, he said.

After seeing that it would cost a lot and be hard to widen roads or build new ones, the MPO has revived the idea of building a mass transit system. Unlike the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus service, the new service would target middle-class commuters.

"One reason people don't use the bus is that it comes so infrequently," chimed in resident Victoria Stout, who works at Tropicana Field.

The MPO has chosen a proposed route for most of the transit line and will soon begin the second part of a study on building the 40-mile system. Streetcars, light passenger rail, monorail or a combination could be used. The tracks could be built at ground level, on elevated tracks, or some of each.

One section of the prospective route in St. Petersburg is still uncertain. From Gandy Boulevard to Central Avenue, the tracks could run along 16th, Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) or Fourth streets -- or along Interstate 275.

Elevated tracks along I-275 with infrequent stations would allow passengers to get to their destinations faster. A streetcar would fit the feel of one of the neighborhood streets better and likely be more useful to businesses and residents, Smith said.

"We have some fears here, how it's going to affect our neighborhood," said Stephanie Pitts, who lives in Crescent Heights neighborhood in St. Petersburg, between Fourth and Dr. M. L. King (Ninth) streets. "It's not taking us to (Tampa International) Airport. It's not taking us to Tampa. It's taking us to Tyrone Square Mall."

Residents who have used good light-rail systems in other countries or U.S. cities seemed more open to the idea of such system here. But pointing to systems, such as Miami's Metrorail -- dubbed "Metrofail" for being underused and expensive -- they stressed that it must be planned perfectly.

"I think a lot of younger people like me would use it," resident Bob Jeffrey told Smith on Monday. "I'd like something clean and quiet. I'd like something that's designed appropriately. It needs to have some pizazz. And I'd like it not to create an area of slums around it."

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