Steve shares his Examination of Transit in Pinellas County, Florida for a peek at the light rail plans that will appear on the ballot next year. Here it is:
The most densely populated county in the state of Florida according to the 2010 Census, Pinellas County contains twenty four municipalities and one county government, all of which must agree on certain common goals. Public transportation or “transit” is one of them. As Emerson, Menkus, and VanNess (2011,p.29) say “Public works activities…are core local government responsibilities” and transit is a key component of those responsibilities. With an almost fully built-out land area of approximately 279 square miles and a population density of 3,347 persons per square mile, public transit is an economic necessity.
To facilitate this need for local transit, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) was proposed in 1982 by the Florida Legislature. This new authority merged the pre-existing St. Petersburg Municipal Transit System with the Central Pinellas Transit Authority to oversee public transit for the whole county. The act proposing this merger of governmental agencies was approved by voters in 1984. The Authority’s board is composed of elected officials appointed by the governments that PSTA serves.
Despite the preponderance of a “car culture” in our society, use of transit systems is on the rise (Renzulli, 2013) and PSTA posted one of it’s highest ridership numbers for a summer month in June 2013 (PSTA). To meet the growing need for public transportation, PSTA has plans for adopting light rail transportation to supplement bus transit. Light rail is typically an urban form of public transport using steel-tracked fixed guideways that operate primarily along exclusive rights of way and have vehicles capable of operating as a single train or as multiple units coupled together. It’s a system that has been adopted with some success in many cities across the nation including Dallas, Texas (Holywell, 2013).
Ironically, the planned light rail is similar to the trolley service that operated in St. Petersburg from 1919 until it was dismantled in 1949. But this new light rail system will stretch from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater and thus will not be confined to one municipality. In 2009 there was considerable media hype surrounding Federal funding for high-speed rail service in Florida between Tampa and Orlando and the subsequent derailment of that project in Tallahassee. At the same time PSTA was quietly adopting a ten year mass transit plan (DeCamp, 2009) which has light rail as it’s centerpiece, and which could still connect to a statewide rail line, if one is ever built.
PSTA, however, is not waiting for the rest of the state. Since the passage of this plan activities have centered on gaining the publics commitment to it. The organization Greenlight Pinellas has been central in this effort. It exists as yet another intergovernmental organization with board members from the various Pinellas municipalities and county government.
To support the construction of the proposed light rail a vote on a one-cent sales tax will be coming up in the 2014 election season. Should the initiative pass, it will surely spur a flurry of grant applications, both state and federal, looking for additional financial support in building the light rail infrastructure. This project has been tentatively scheduled on a ten year time-line, providing short-term construction employment as well as long-term operating employment.
Even after all this cooperation and organized planning, the fate of light rail, like that of St. Petersburg Pier, is to be decided by the public. Now it will be up to the voters of the county to determine what they think is the best plan for alleviating traffic congestion in our future. In 2014, we will find out if that future includes light rail.
DeCamp, David (2009, December 2). Light rail added to Pinellas County transit agency’s long-term plans. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/news/transportation/light-rail-added-to-pinellas-county-transit-agencys-long-term-plans/1056076
DeCamp, David (2010, March 22). Summit tries to drum up support for light rail in Pinellas County. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/local/summit-tries-to-drum-up-support-for-light-rail-in-pinellas-county/1081915
DeCamp, David (2010, September 15). Pinellas transit chief resigns in ‘huge blow’ to rail efforts. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/news/localgovernment/pinellas-transit-chief-resigns-in-huge-blow-to-rail-efforts/1121735
Emerson, Sandra, Menkus, Royce, & Van Ness, Kathy (2011). The Public Administrator’s Companion. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.
Steinle, Diane (2010, February 20). Pinellas County light rail efforts will require cooperation. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/pinellas-county-light-rail-efforts-will-require-cooperation/1074452
Holeywell, Ryan. (2013, September 3). DART, America’s Longest Light Rail System, Turns 30. Governing. Retrieved from http://www.governing.com/blogs/view/gov-dart-americas-largest-light-rail-system-Tturns-30.html
Holeywell, Ryan. (2013, August 29). The Mystery Behind America’s Decline in Driving. Governing. Retrieved from http://www.governing.com/blogs/view/gov-new-report-shows-how-little-we-know-about-decline-in-driving.html
Hooper, Ernest. (2013, August 18). Pinellas’ light-rail system gaining traction, momentum. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/news/humaninterest/pinellas-light-rail-system-gaining-traction-momentum/2137115
Phillips, Anna (2013, January 23). Pinellas likely to vote on sales tax for rail and bus service. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/news/transportation/masstransit/pinellas-likely-to-vote-on-sales-tax-for-rail-and-bus-service/1271889
Renzulli, Leigh Ann. (2013, June 4). Transit Ridership Surges, Despite Fare Increases and Service Cuts. Governing. Retrieved from http://www.governing.com/blogs/fedwatch/gov-transit-ridership-surges-despite-fare-increases-and-service-cuts.html
Stanley, Kameel. (2013, March 15). Pinellas transit officials work to win support for light rail. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/news/transportation/masstransit/pinellas-transit-officials-work-to-win-support-for-light-rail/2109258
Pinellas County to have “Transportation eTownHall” on light rail. (2010, December 4). Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/editorials/pinellas-county-to-have-transportation-etownhall-on-light-rail/1138158
Light rail plans get rolling. (2012, February 25). Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/editorials/light-rail-plans-get-rolling/1216989