Rail looks promising for Pinellas

Published Friday, September 25, 2009

The case for light rail is looking better for Pinellas County. Results from a resident survey, along with key moves by transportation officials, offer fresh hope that the county may finally get serious about mass transit.

Last week, the county's bus operator, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, released a survey of 500 voters that showed 66 percent favor a Pinellas commuter rail system and 80 percent favor one linking other counties. Voters oppose higher property or gas taxes to fund rail, but 62 percent were okay with a 1-cent increase in the 7-cent sales tax, especially if it came with a property tax decrease.

The results should encourage officials who recently initiated an in-depth study of the best light rail route from downtown St. Petersburg through the Gateway area to Clearwater.

Another piece of good news: The Florida Department of Transportation appears willing to study early replacement of the Howard Frankland Bridge, the most favored route for a rail line linking Pinellas and Tampa.

Rail opponents have argued that Pinellas is not well-suited for rail because it is too suburban, lacks employment centers, and has a population that is fiscally conservative and wedded to cars.

But experiences elsewhere challenge that assumption. Florida Tri-Rail, which serves Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, has had budget and ridership challenges, but now it's running out of parking spaces at most of its stations. Operators are arranging temporary parking at churches and shopping centers as they finalize plans for new lots and multi-story garages at the busiest stations.

And the New York Times reported last week that the light rail line in sprawling Phoenix that opened in December amid controversy over its cost and ridership predictions is proving popular — especially, and surprisingly, on weekends when it ferries people from the suburbs to downtown for ball games, cultural events, pub crawls and restaurants. The 20-mile line is averaging 33,000 riders a day, 7,000 more than predicted, in part because of Arizona State students who travel between campuses. Some $3.5 billion has been privately invested along the rail line, and a 37-mile extension of the line is planned.

Thirty-six U.S. communities have built rail lines and in some of those, ridership is exceeding expectations, traffic congestion is decreasing and businesses along the lines are growing. While it can take years to complete studies and build support for rail, it's exciting to contemplate the possibilities if Pinellas gets onboard.


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