The Never-Ending Debate on Tampa Bay Light Rail

A proposed rapid-transit line running between Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Photo Credit: (St. Petersburg Times)
A proposed rapid-transit line running between Clearwater and St. Petersburg.
Photo Credit: Ricardo Ferro (St. Petersburg Times)

As the debate on the future of mass transit in the Tampa Bay area continues to intensify as the vote on Greenlight Pinellas looms closer, I thought it would be interesting to look back a bit on the history of this topic. Multiple times, politicians and community advocates in the region have tried to push for a rapid transit system linking the area, but each time those plans have failed.

With the failure of the 1970’s TBART (Tampa Bay Area Rapid Transit) proposal still relatively fresh in the public’s mind, the St. Petersburg Times published a special feature piece called “Stuck In Traffic” on August 20, 1985. The following article describes the scenario of the proposed service(s) and what the future of transit in the region looked like at that time.

It’s no easy job that Wilbur Barnes has.

As director of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), Barnes has the daunting task of trying to reverse 50 years of American history. In a time and a place where the car is king, Barnes is trying to convince more Pinellas residents that it makes sense to ride a bus.

It’s not an easy sell. Listen to Roberta Gehm, who regularly rides a PSTA bus to work in St. Petersburg: “It is a pain in the a–,” Miss Gehm says. “You’ll be sitting here and sitting here, and an hour, two hours, three hours go by . . . You get a million and one questions (at work.) ‘What too you so long?’ ”

In a county where more people walk to work than use the bus, according to the 1980 Census figures, Barnes acknowledges what is all too plain: PSTA buses are even slower and less convenient than fighting traffic in a car.

At least in a car, you can listen to the radio, sing or curse the boss.

Planners in Pinellas and Hillsborough are taking steps to improve bus service and develop commuter rail systems that could whisk commuters to work above the clogged highways.

But the future and present are separated by a wide gulf that only hundreds of millions of dollars can bridge.

In Pinellas, the limited success of the existing bus service creates a circular bind.

By spending more money to build a better bus system, Barnes says, the PSTA would probably attract more riders and get more cars off the county’s crowded highways.

Lacking riders, Barnes finds it hard to convince local officials to spend a lot of money on buses.

“I can’t get excited about spending more money before people start using it,” says Pinellas County Commissioner Charles Rainey.

State transportation officials say that without effective mass transit, including rail rapid transit systems, the region is destined to sit in traffic jams indefinitely.

“You look at traffic on our roads, it’s one guy riding in a car,” says C.W. Monts de Oca, the top state transportation official for the region. “Until we change the philosophy of people, and get them to agree that they want to ride a bus or want to ride in car pools, we’ve got some tremendous problems.

“We cannot provide the (highway) capacity for people to ride in individual cars.”

Local officials, their eyes on the budget axe that hangs over federal mass transit subsidies, are less sure that mass transit will work.

“I just haven’t seen too many successful mass transit systems,” says Hillsborough County Commissioner Pickens Talley.

“Mass transportation in Pinellas County is not a workable situation,” says Rainey. “If the buses went on strike tomorrow morning, who’d miss them?”

A cautious approach

The Tampa Bay area has historically taken a cautious approach to mass transportation.

An effort in the 1970s to organize a regional rapid transit authority and develop an intercity rail system linking Hillsborough and Pinellas counties died in 1977. Political squabbling and sharp conflicts over whether rapid rail transit made sense were listed as the causes of death.

“It’s difficult to get elected officials of . . . neighboring counties to serve on a regional board . . . when each county is so totally immersed in transportation problems within its own borders,” says Barnes.

The regional transit authority’s legacy was an $815,000 study that said, among other things, that the Suncoast had to have good bus service before it tried to develop rail transit systems.

Pinellas and Hillsborough counties did eventually develop countywide bus systems.

Hillsborough expanded an existing Tampa city bus service to the entire county in 1980. Since then, countywide ridership has increased 78 percent, says Cliff Hayden, executive director of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

Earlier this month, the Hillsborough bus line inaugurated the first commuter bus service between St. Petersburg’s Gateway area and downtown Tampa. Hayden says the new service appears to be doing a good business.

Pinellas had two bus systems, one in St. Petersburg and one serving the northern half of the county. It took several years of persistent politicking to convince county voters to merge the two systems. The merger took effect last October.

The merged PSTA has improved service in most area of Pinellas. Ridership, which dipped below 9-million riders for the two systems in 1983 and 1983, is back up to about 9.1-million a year, Barnes says.

Before the merger, it took two hours and two buses to ride from Clearwater to St. Petersburg. Now, it’s a 70-minute ride on a PSTA bus from Clearwater to St. Petersburg.

In a car, however, the same 22-mile trip takes 35 to 45 minutes.

Money troubles

Will mass transit get better? The outlook is uncertain.

Both bus systems are bracing for likely cuts in federal mass transit subsidies. Barnes says the pullback of federal support will mean “we’re looking at regular fare increases, and we’re looking at local tax increases.”

The PSTA last year got about $3.6-million of its $12.1-million budget from fares, Barnes says. The rest came from federal subsidies and property taxes.

For next year, the transit system’s proposed budget calls for a hike in the basic fare from 50 to 60 cents. It also calls for an increase in the property tax subsidy that will boost from $11.51 to $16.27 the amount an owner of a $60,000 Pinellas home pays annually for bus service that property owner may well never use.

Both counties’ bus systems have plans to double the size of their fleets. The PSTA plans envision growth from 129 transit buses to 325 within 15 years, at an estimated cost of $25-million. To make the region’s mass transit systems more effective, transit officials will have to muster political support for massive expenditures.

Building a light rail system “is going to be a real challenge for the political community of Pinellas,” says State Sen. Curt Kiser, R-Palm Harbor, a strong advocate of better mass transit.

“. . . The fact is,” says Kiser, “it will be the single largest expenditure of transportation funds for one project this area has ever seen. Pinellas County commissioners this spring voted to spend $2-million to study using an abandoned railway corridor as the basis for a rapid rail transit system, or guideway, linking downtown Clearwater and downtown St. Petersburg (see map, 1-A [posted at top]).

Taxpayers have already spent about $8.9-million to buy about 19 miles of old Seaboard Coastline Railroad right-of-way between downtown Clearwater and 34th Street S in St. Petersburg. The old railroad route is the one Pinellas planners say should be the first link in any rapid rail system.

The state plans to buy another 14 miles of railroad land between Clearwater and Tarpon Springs. All told, the Legislature has appropriated $17.6-million to buy railroad right-of-way in Pinellas.

Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, who campaigned for the decision to finance the guideway study, says Pinellas must have “some realistic alternatives to the automobile.”

Hillsborough officials are pondering similar plans to develop a rapid rail or automatic “guideway” system that would transport people from Tampa’s suburbs into the downtown business district.

Todd envisions private businesses helping to pay the cost of the Pinellas guideway system by sharing with government some of the profits from development around rail transit stations.

Still, officials in both counties say building better mass transit systems could depend on the federal government.

Miami’s 15-month old Metrorail system got its start on 11 miles of track with the help of $1.05-billion in federal tax money.

Unfortunately for mass transit advocates, Miami’s Metrorail is attracting more scorn than riders.

Among those who have questioned the sense of using federal money to build the Metrorail is President Reagan, who said of the Miami system that “it would have been a lot cheaper to buy everyone a limousine.”

Mass transit advocates in the Tampa Bay area say it is unfair to take potshots at the Metrorail so soon.

Within 10 years, Hayden says, Miami will realize that the Metrorail is “the best thing that ever happened.”

But Hayden also says that raising as much as $600-million to build a similar system for Tampa will create “a lot of controversy.”

Mass transit advocates say that the Tampa Bay area will some day be big enough to make a rail system work.

“We’re not New York, obviously,” says Todd. “But we do need to have a way to have people move from one part of the county to another.”

Perhaps not so surprising is that this debate from 1985 is almost the same exact one we’re going through today. There’s no escaping the fact that there will always be people vehemently opposed to mass transit, and vice versa. What can’t be escaped however is the region’s continual population growth and subsequent impact to civic infrastructure. You can widen Highway 19 to 30 lanes, and the traffic congestion will still be there. With each day passing, the Howard Frankland Bridge continues to deteriorate under the weight of bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic.

Without an alternative, this will continue to be the daily norm.

(Zac is an occasional guest blogger here at Public Transit as told by HARTride 2012. You can also find him on his main blog, Transit 509, and on Twitter as @transit509.)

5 thoughts on “The Never-Ending Debate on Tampa Bay Light Rail

  1. PSTA introduced their Greenlight plan with the threat that they will cut bus service by 30% if we do not
    approve their $2.8 BILLION proposal. Yes, we need buses, many more buses…..but there is no evidence
    that we need a train from St. Pete to Clearwater. The population of Pinellas County is projected to be the same
    in 2040 as it is today:

    Click to access Population-projections-FPS-162-Revised.pdf

    PSTA has been spending more money every year for 30 years and today they have less than 2% of Pinellas
    population riding their buses. Is something wrong with this picture? They cannot provide an effective bus service
    and they want us to trust them with $2.5 BILLION to build a train?

    They really want to build a train, a $2.5 BILLION train. It doesn’t make sense that we should be forced to vote
    for a $2.5 BILLION train when all we really need at this time is $300 million in bus improvements.

    Something you may not know:
    Greenlight is NOT a bus or a train – Greenlight is an ordinance, a law.
    The only way we can vote intelligently is to know what we are voting for.

    If you are planning to vote on Greenlight, you should read all of Doc Webb’s posts explaining the ordinance
    you will be voting for or against.

    NO ONE ELSE is explaining the issue in this way – everything else is an attempt to get you to vote for something
    you may not really understand.

    Here are all of Doc’s segments on the Greenlight ordinance.

    Let’s look at the real facts:

    1. Greenlight is a $2.8 BILLION plan that requires a massive tax on the people of Pinellas County.
    The local tax revenue to PSTA will jump from $34 million/year (property tax) to $148 million/year (sales tax)
    if Greenlight is approved.

    2. The light rail/streetcar from St. Pete to Clearwater will cost $2.5 BILLION (90%) and is expected to have
    9,000 daily riders in 2035, ten years after completion, less than 1% of the projected population.

    3. $300 million (10%) will be used to improve bus service by 65%. The current bus system serves about 20,000
    riders daily.
    A 65% expansion should add about 13,000 riders. For $300 million.

    4. PSTA is BLACKMAILING voters by threatening to cut bus service 30% if Greenlight does not pass.
    PSTA desperately wants to spend $2.5 BILLION for a streetcar that will add only 9,000 riders,
    TEN YEARS after completion. For $2.5 BILLION.

    5. The average fare on PSTA is 91 cents. PSTA could pay for the $300 million, 65% bus improvement without
    raising taxes. All they have to do is raise the average fare to $1.40-$1.50 for those riders who do not qualify
    for discounts.

    6. The increase of $114 million/year tax will be paid by those who DO NOT own property.
    Property owners will pay about the same sales tax as they are now paying as property tax,
    which PSTA says will be eliminated. Maybe.

    7. Wealthy property owners will actually pay LESS tax and non-property owners will pay MORE tax
    (the increase of $114 million).
    Commissioner Susan Latvala explains that here: (start at 6:45).

    8. All the facts are here on the Greenlight site:

    Click to access Greenlight%20Pinellas%20Preliminary%20Financial%20Feasibility%20Analysis.pdf

    1. Hi John, thank you for visiting my site.

      First, I want to let you know that I’ve seen your comments on the Greenlight Pinellas Facebook Page. Although I really think it is irritating to some that you’re repeating the same points over and over and over, I’m going to respond to your points here.

      A) PSTA is NOT THREATENING voters with a draconian system-wide service cut. They are telling us that if Greenlight doesn’t pass, eventually, they will have no choice but to cut service. I’m sure many agencies have been able to trim costs in administrative, marketing, operations, and other areas to try and devote added funds to improving their transit systems, but what happens when all of those avenues are exhausted? The agencies either have to get creative with finding ways to fund their systems or they end up slash service and hike fares because there’s no other avenues to do so. This is not just PSTA, but many transit agencies across the nation are having to do this.

      B) Why do you think only a fraction of Pinellas residents are using transit right now? Maybe it’s because that it takes roughly two hours for one to travel between Clearwater and downtown St. Pete? I’m not sure how the old article in this post calculated the travel time between St. Pete and Clearwater, and whether or not it was calculating travel time by way of: from downtown to downtown, or just merely between city limits. If Greenlight passes, PSTA could one day establish a few express routes between the two cities, which then may lead to Bus Rapid Transit, and then Light Rail. That would be able to get people from A to B to C faster than the local bus and faster than driving and having to be stuck in traffic.

      C) PSTA isn’t FORCING people to vote YES for Greenlight. Ultimately, that’s the voter’s decision. The reason the referendum is being brought up, is because PSTA isn’t sustainable under the property tax model. Same thing goes for HART (which is why the failed 2010 referendum was brought up). The only way for a transit agency to legally change their funding source from the property tax to the sales tax is via a voter referendum. Something that the FL legislature actually got close to barring recently, but supposedly…Gov Scott vetoed it. If Greenlight fails, look for this type of measure to be brought up in the legislature again…AND BE SIGNED.

      D) I’m fully aware that the Greenlight measure is an ordinance. And that many like to dispute its validity.

      E) Who is Doc Webb? I read through his blog and it sounds like everything he wrote is just as biased as the lovely St. Petersblog. WAIT! He even has that blog in his favorites! I’m not surprised by that you know.

      And on your next set of points…

      1) PSTA is NOT a massive tax increase and Politifact already proved it as so. Of course, you all dispute their findings. That’s fine…your view. I respect your view.

      2) Do you really think that relatively low ridership estimates mean that no one is going to use a particular transit service? I don’t think so.

      3) Do you really think that 10% to buses is going to stay 10%? I have a feeling that the handout could change before everything is final.

      4) PSTA is NOT BLACKMAILING voters.

      5) So you’re saying that customers SHOULD HAVE TO PAY HIGHER FARES? What if one day, the base fare jumps to $5 or $6? Most customers WON’T be able to afford that. The system will end up crumbling. By the way, have you heard of Title VI? I’m sure if fares go too high that you’ll see tons of Title VI violation lawsuits flying.

      6) Tourists, which many come from out of town. Do you not think that they wouldn’t use the improved transit system?

      7) I don’t trust anything from politicians with the last name of Latvala. Remember that Jack Latvala (the ex-husband of Susan) tried to have HART and PSTA merge without having either agency agree to merge. Neither agency wanted to merge (though HART was more vocal about their displeasure). Also, such a merger would have caused more problems than solutions. Privatizing PSTA, which is what NTFT wants, won’t do much good either.

      8) You must really think that even though the points you’re arguing are out in the open, does that mean that people are going to go with your arguments? Some may, but I won’t.

      At the end of the day, views are views. I fully respect your views on Greenlight, even though I greatly disagree with them. Please be sure to come back and visit again when my PSTA section is finished.

  2. John I do not know where you got your bus fare information but it is not $.91! As a bus rider it cost an adult $2.00 a ride and $65.00 a month! I’ve lived in other states and this county has the worst public Transit system I’ve been on. It takes 2 1/2 hours on the bus from Clearwater to St. Petersburg and there is many places you still cant get to on a bus. This needs to change!!!!! Only people who drive are oppose to greenlight. Try getting around Pinellas without a car! Better yet try going to Tampa without a car. Then maybe you would see our side of it. Thank you.

    1. The article quoted was from 1985, citing a study similar to the one PSTA did the past couple years. In 1985 the fare was different. Second paragraph from the top.

  3. Here is the Greenlight financial analysis:

    Click to access Greenlight%20Pinellas%20Preliminary%20Financial%20Feasibility%20Analysis.pdf

    Page 7:
    “Passenger fares are the second most important source of operating revenue, comprising approximately one quarter of all operating revenues on average. Farebox revenue projections incorporate inputs provided by PSTA and TMD. They assume an average fare of $0.91 (2013 dollars) for both bus and rail with anticipated increases every three years based on a compounded annual growth rate of 4.2% through FY 2030 and 3.0% thereafter.”
    Brad Miller, CEO of PSTA, has referred to the $0.91 average fare in several meetings and presentations.
    Would you pay a higher fare for better service?

    I am not opposed to a 65% bus expansion for $300 million. I believe that PSTA should give voters a choice of voting for a bus expansion for $300 million and, SEPARATELY, a new train for $2.5 BILLION. Of course there would be funding alternatives with each.

    Greenlight does not give voters a choice – if you want a $300 million 65% bus expansion, you have to vote for Greenlight, which means you will also have to pay for a new $2,5 BILLION train.

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