Mark R. Howard
A solution in search of a problem?
St. Petersburg sits along Tampa Bay, on the eastern edge of the Pinellas County peninsula. St. Petersburg Beach is eight miles due west across the peninsula, on the Gulf.
It’s not hard to drive back and forth. Three roads run from downtown almost all the way to the beach. Central Avenue, an old-style two-way commercial thoroughfare, is the slowest, with many stoplights. Parallel to Central, however, the three lanes of First Avenue North run one way going west. The three lanes of First Avenue South run one way going east toward downtown St. Petersburg. Both of those one-way avenues are lined with a nice combination of residential and light commercial — homes that have been converted into small, one-firm office buildings in most cases. They’re great roads — tree-lined, well-maintained, with few stoplights to slow traffic. They work — no matter the time of day, you can drive from downtown to the beach in 15 minutes or so.
The federal, state and local governments are in the process of spending $44 million to break those good roads. That sum represents the initial funding for a “bus rapid transit line” called SunRunner.
The SunRunner will have special stations, bus stops that will be gussied up with art displays and raised platforms. Add a dose of technology — to help keep it running smoothly, the bus drivers will be able to change the traffic lights if they’re running behind schedule. Most significant, however, the SunRunner will get, for most of its route, a dedicated or “semi-dedicated” traffic lane on both First Avenue North and First Avenue South. That will effectively reduce the capacity of those streets, creating traffic congestion where there isn’t any now.
It’s tough to figure out what problem the SunRunner is supposed to solve. There’s already plenty of public transportation between downtown and the beach. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority operates an open-air trolley that runs up and down Central Avenue between downtown and the beach. The PSTA also operates a regular bus between downtown and the beach. It takes about 30 minutes. The SunRunner — at a cost of $44 million in taxpayer money, plus around $3 million a year in operating costs and one-third of the capacity of First Avenue North and South — will cut about 10 minutes off that.
The SunRunner, predictably, found support from all the politicians and Chamber of Commerce officials for whom anything that can be cited as an “amenity” is somehow a sign that they’ve done something. All sold to the public under the banner of “reduces traffic congestion” and “reduces harmful emissions” and all other manner of grandiose claims.
There was no public hue and cry for a rapid bus. The city of St. Pete Beach even fought the PTSA’s plans for a long time until PSTA planners altered their plan to take a few of the wishes of beach residents into account. As it is, the SunRunner won’t even be allowed to go all the way from downtown to the Don CeSar resort, a landmark of the beach tourist industry at the southern edge of St. Pete Beach.
It’s also true that residents downtown and the tourists at the beach are, on the economic spectrum, relatively well off, and relatively less likely to use public transportation — meaning the bus is a transportation subsidy for people who don’t need it and may not use it.
What’s really going on here, of course, is minor-league empire building by transportation planners for whom the word “transit” is inherently, glowingly virtuous. They see their roles not as helping everyone get around efficiently but rather as getting as many people out of their cars as they can and on to publicly operated vehicles and PSTA-prescribed schedules. Cars bad. Bus good. The end game here for the planners was finding a politically possible way to begin building a fast-bus network throughout the region — even if rapid buses make sense in some places and no sense here.
There is, of course, nothing to show but numbers if you find creative ways to increase ridership of an existing system. With the SunRunner, the PSTA gets monuments to point to — the specially painted buses along with the slick little bus stops and the bus-only lanes. And everybody gets to pretend that since the federal government is paying for half of it, the project is free.
One wonders about equivalencies: $44 million in public expenditures would buy a lot of Uber rides between downtown and the beach. For that sum, the PSTA could give a small van to just about any hotel on the beach that would agree to supply a driver to shuttle its customers back and forth between downtown and the beach. That sum could probably have helped improve overall bus service for black residents of the Midtown area near downtown who rely on public transportation — it’s an evergreen story for newspaper and TV reporters to chronicle slow service and the frequent bus changes required for many to get to work or a grocery store. I doubt whether many Midtown residents got to weigh in on the virtues of the SunRunner.
I am not dogmatically opposed to public transportation. I got a nice letter from the PSTA after I rode the bus for several days during the Great Recession and wrote a column touting the cleanliness of the buses and the viability of the service for people like me who live near a bus line and don’t have to change buses five times to get to work.
But the SunRunner fails to answer certain essential questions when it comes to spending $44 million of the public’s money: What problem does it solve? What alternatives were considered? Where’s the data to support the demand for it — and back up the claims to all its benefits? And is it worth the cost?
I have occasion, fairly frequently, to drive between downtown and the beach on the First Avenues. I’ll be curious, when the SunRunner begins service in 2022, whether I’ll be seeing buses full of happy beach-goers or empty rolling monuments to planners who thought they knew better than I how to get me somewhere.
— Mark Howard, Executive Editor
Read more in Florida Trend's May issue.
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