By Sharon Calvert (from Eye on Tampa Bay)
Since Greenlight Pinellas failed in 2014 and Go Hillsborough failed in 2016, FDOT in Tampa Bay has been doling out millions and millions for more transit studies like it’s Christmas candy.
For the moment at least, the strategy has changed to pursuing individual transit projects instead of going after some massive grand transit plan that have consistently failed in Tampa Bay. Pursuing individual projects enables projects to proceed more stealthily under the radar of public scrutiny.
It is all about getting a pot of federal transit money – at a time when transit ridership is declining, vehicle ownership is increasing, vehicle miles travelled is increasing, innovation is disrupting traditional transit and less than 2% use transit in Tampa Bay.
Only government can be so out of touch with reality. This is why the transportation issue in Tampa Bay has become so dysfunctional.
The transit project in this new scheme that is the furthest along is PSTA’s Central Avenue BRT (CA BRT) in Pinellas County. This is the catalyst of the catalyst project. It is in the federal funding spigot pipeline and has been rated by the FTA. It appears this project got this far with little public scrutiny and probably not enough transparency.
We’ll start shining a bright light on what the CA BRT project is and the process used to further it.
Do not forget that PSTA was caught in 2014 abusing federal transit security funds by using those funds on advertising for Greenlight Pinellas. Due to this deception, PSTA was forced to hand back $345K to the Feds. Wonder if the FTA knows that?
PSTA submitted their Federal Small Starts application for the Central Avenue BRT to the FTA September 7, 2017. Small Starts projects must have a total estimated capital cost of $300 million or less and must be seeking less than $100 million from the feds.
The name Central Avenue BRT (CA BRT) is a misnomer because the route actually runs on First Avenue North and South. The existing Central Avenue trolley route continues business as usual.
The CA BRT is a 22 mile long route from downtown St. Petersburg to the Don Cesar at St. Petersburg Beach. To meet the federal qualification that greater than 50% of the route must use a dedicated lane, this project uses a road diet that takes away13 miles of general purpose lanes along First Avenue North, First Avenue South and Pasadena Avenue in Pinellas County.
According to the Small Starts Application submitted to the FTA in September 2017 (emphasis mine):
Along the entire length of 1st Avenue North and 1st Avenue South, and along Pasadena Avenue from Central Avenue to Huffman Way, one general purpose lane will be converted to a Business Access and Transit (BAT) lane that will be used by only buses and turning vehicles.
Along 1st Avenue North, the BAT lane will run on the left side of the road with island stations for boarding on the right. Along 1st Avenue South, the alignment runs on the left side of the road in a BAT lane with island stations for boarding on the right between Pasadena Avenue and 20th Street.
East of 20th Street, the alignment transitions to right side running. Along Pasadena Avenue, the BAT lane will run on the right side of the road. In total, the BAT lanes will comprise 13 miles of the 22-mile alignment.
While First Avenues North and South are local roads, Pasadena Avenue aka 66th Street is a State Road. Pinellas County has responsibility over their local roads. Why is FDOT allowing a road diet taking out a general purpose lane of traffic on a state road?
When the Corey Causeway draw bridge is open, traffic gets backed up for quite some way and can take a long time to clear. Imagine the bigger traffic backup mess created when the Corey Causeway draw bridge goes up and traffic is even worse because a general lane of traffic leading to it has been taken out.
Qualifying for federal funds requires committed local funding for both capital and a long term funding source for operating and maintenance costs. According to PSTA’s CA BRT Financial Plan submitted to the FTA (page 5), the capital cost of the CA BRT is estimated at $41.36 million (in 2019 dollars) and PSTA is asking for $20.36 million (49.2%) from the Feds. The chart below is included in PSTA’s submittal to the FTA last September.
Page 6 of the Financial Plan states:
The City is currently in negotiations with PSTA regarding financial support of the BRT project for both capital and operations.
What is so striking is the City of St. Petersburg Beach has never taken any action, has never voted on or approved to “plan” or “commit” $1.5 million to the capital costs or provide operational funding for the CA BRT.
PSTA went to the St. Petersburg Beach council in October 2016 requesting financial support for the project but no action was taken by the council. PSTA has never gone back to St. Petersburg Beach since October 2016. There is no evidence of ongoing negotiations between PSTA and St. Petersburg Beach.
This is no small mistake so why did PSTA include such misleading information in their September 2017 Small Starts application submittal to the FTA? Is PSTA being deceptive again? This question deserves an answer – especially in light of what PSTA did pursuing Greenlight.
The CA BRT project will put 60 foot buses with four stops and no bus bays on the narrow congested Gulf Blvd. This service is in addition to the existing Jolly Trolley that runs along Gulf Blvd and the Central Ave Trolley.
The project will also eliminate 231 parking spaces in St. Petersburg.
The documentation PSTA submitted to the FTA in September 2017 for this project stated it had gone through an extensive public involvement process. The Eye has attempted to get information regarding such extensive effort and the data captured from it from PSTA. To date, we have only received this list of public involvement events.
Is this considered “extensive” outreach?
Of the 39 events attended by 462 attendees, most were meetings with elected officials, the bureaucracy and special interests.
Where are the sign in sheets and the data captured from the meetings? Were surveys done? If so, where’s the data captured from those surveys? Do all the residents and businesses along the route know about this project and its impact? What were all the communication vehicles PSTA used to inform the public and capture feedback, emails, newsletters, letters, social media, from their website, etc.? Where is the information captured from that communication?
All the data and information captured from public involvement are public records The information should be either accessible by the public or easily accessible to provide to anyone who requests it.
We have talked to people in Pinellas County who are unaware of the project and certainly do not know about the road diets and putting 60 foot buses on Gulf Blvd.
We can bet most, including those most directly impacted, those who live in St. Petersburg Beach and probably those who live in S. Pasadena, do not know about this project or what it is doing.
It is time they do.
More to come about this project and PSTA.