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.
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.