Pinellas renews quest to level up transportation

Pinellas County officials say an integrated system that puts transportation in the center of several important needs, such as jobs, affordable housing, workforce training, safe travel, road congestions and infrastructure preservation would create a balanced solution that reduces road congestion, makes transportation corridors safer and enhances transit service.

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County has heard the public “loud and clear.” Government needs to do more to improve transportation.

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton relayed that message as part of an update to commissioners July 18 about the team approach being used to try to solve the county’s “big problem:” How to get from Point A to Point B quicker and safer.

Burton has been working with Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller and Forward Pinellas Executive Director Whit Blanton and their respective staff members to find ways to use transportation to link people to jobs, job training and housing.

During the July 18 work session, Burton talked about some of the obstacles standing in the way of creating a robust transportation system that meets everyone’s needs.

One of the biggest hurdles is funding. Looking to the future, conditions are bleak. The forecast for the Transportation Trust Fund shows a negative balance, beginning in 2022. PSTA faces the same situation with depletion of its reserves by the same year.

Forward Pinellas hosted a community conversation earlier this year and started a process that looks at the system as a whole. Public feedback is clear. People want government to do something about the traffic, which most say is getting worse.

Officials are looking for a balanced solution that reduces road congestion, makes transportation corridors safer and enhances transit service. The goal is creation of an integrated system that puts transportation in the center of several important needs, such as jobs, affordable housing, workforce training, safe travel, road congestions and infrastructure preservation.

“There’s an economic benefit to making a transportation system that works,” Burton said.

But all that comes with a hefty price tag.

Road congestion

Officials believe improving stoplight timing along major corridors would help reduce road congestion. An Advanced Traffic Management System is already in use on several roadways. It would cost an estimated $35 million to add ATMS to more areas, but travel times could be reduced by 13-15%.

Intersection improvements also could help. Additional dedicated turn lanes would make intersections more functional, help alleviate traffic congestion and improve safety. The estimated cost is $49 million.

Safer corridors

Safety improvements at major crash locations would cost an estimated $50 million with recurring operations and maintenance costs of $100,000 a year. Improvements include installing overpasses and enhanced traffic controls at Pinellas Trail crossings and other locations to reduce pedestrian and vehicle crashes and fatalities.

Increasing street lighting along major corridors could reduce pedestrian and vehicle crashes by about 28 percent. It would cost an estimated $40 million to install lights on 100 miles of primary and feeder roads with recurring costs of $275,000 a year for operations and maintenance.

Pedestrian safety could be improved by filling 120 miles of sidewalk gaps and replacing six aging bridges. But that would cost about $73 million with $1 million in recurring annual operations and maintenance costs.

Enhanced transit

Transit experts have identified several corridors they believe would provide the best connections to jobs, training and affordable housing. A data-driven approach was used to prioritize three of those corridors for enhanced transit. They are U.S. 19 South, Roosevelt Boulevard/East Bay Drive and Alt. U.S. 19 South.

U.S. 19 South was picked because it connects workforce development opportunities (St. Petersburg College locations) with areas with high-population densities, low-income residents and zero-car households. It would connect multiple activity centers and Community Redevelopment Areas, including Lealman CRA, South St. Petersburg CRA and the Skyway Marina District.

Cost to operate enhanced transit along the corridor would be about $4 million a year with estimated capital costs of $5.9 million and eight buses.

Roosevelt Boulevard/East Bay Drive corridor connects residential areas with medical, office and manufacturing jobs. About 15% of people in the corridor have incomes below the poverty level. It would cost about $3.2 million annually to operate the route with a capital investment of $5.2 million and eight buses.

Alt. U.S. 19 South corridor connects downtown areas of Clearwater and Largo and west St. Petersburg. The corridor touches four opportunity zones and five activity centers. An estimated 5,500 households in the area have no cars. Adding peak hour service would cost about $3.2 million a year with estimated capital cost of $9.8 million and 13 buses.

Feeder routes would be needed to support priority corridors to provide faster and more reliable service. Annual operating and maintenance cost would be an additional $4.6 million with $39.5 million in capital costs.

Adding it all up

To reduce road congestion, the county would need to invest approximately $64 million in capital projects and it would cost about $75,000 a year for operations and maintenance.

Capital costs of more than $197.6 million would be needed to make transportation corridors safer, plus nearly $1.4 million a year for operations and maintenance.

Capital costs to enhance transit services on three priority corridors plus supporting feeder routes are estimated at $130.4 million with $30,000 in annual operations and maintenance expenses.

Bottom line for everything — $392 million in capital and $31.5 million in annual operations and maintenance costs. The total does not include costs for programs in incorporated areas (municipalities).

Burton admitted that estimates had not been refined but insisted they should be “in the ballpark.” Municipalities still need to weigh in on their needs, he said.

County Commission Chair Karen Seel sent a letter to each of the county’s 24 municipalities asking them to send in a list of their priority needs.

According to Assistant County Administrator Rahim Harji, eight responded, including St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Dunedin, Indian Shores, North Redington Beach, South Pasadena, St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island. Carol Stricklin, Largo’s Community Development director, told commissioners that the city’s response was in the works.

Funding options

The county has three possible ways of getting more funding for transportation. The commission could impose five additional cents in local option fuel tax, which would bring in about $179 million over 10 years. The money would be split 60%-40% with municipalities.

A transportation sales surtax would bring in the most money but would take voter approval through a referendum. If voters approved a half-cent surtax, it would bring in an estimated $1.01 billion over 10 years. If a quarter-cent were imposed, it would bring in $500 million over 10 years.

The last possibility would be to increase ad valorem taxes (millage rate). If the general fund millage were raised 1 mill (using fiscal year 2019 property values) the county would receive an estimated $79.4 million in additional revenue.

If PSTA were to raise its millage by 1 mill, it could increase its revenue by $67.8 million. However, PSTA cannot increase its millage rate without legislative action, as it is currently set at the maximum allowed by the special act that created the agency.

If the commission chooses to hike the local option fuel tax, it would need to notify the state by Oct. 1 for the increase to become effective by Jan. 1. If a decision were made to go to referendum, a decision would need to be made by January or February to be included on the 2020 ballot. Any changes to ad valorem taxes could be done during the regular budget cycle.

Communication needed

Regardless of what happens going forward, Commissioner Dave Eggers wants to make sure the communication lines are open.

“Residents want facts,” he said. “They want the whole picture.”

He said it had to be “very clear this is not just finding more money for government to use.” He wants to make sure the socioeconomic affect is understood and that everyone is included — young and old alike.

Everyone agreed a distinction had to be made between what would be funded by the Penny for Pinellas surtax and what any new source of money would buy.

Commissioners also talked about looking at all possible sources of revenue, including use of toll roads.

The plan now is to go to the municipalities and the public for input. Another work session will be scheduled in October.

“All the options are on the table now,” said Commissioner Ken Welch, “but certain things are not going to fly.”

He said everyone realizes PSTA’s millage should not be capped.

“But that’s reality,” he said. “We’ve got to be strategic about what choices we make. Everyone has to see what’s in it for them.”

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.