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Whether St. Pete Beach likes it or not, rapid buses are likely heading its way

ST. PETE BEACH - Whether residents want it or not, it became apparent Tuesday evening that sooner or later rapid transit buses will one day drive along Gulf Boulevard.

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority officials spent about an hour describing the need for and benefits of initiating rapid bus service that would connect downtown St. Petersburg to hotels and businesses in St. Pete Beach.

The overflow audience listened - though not always politely - as the city's commissioners bluntly told the bus authority's interim director of communications, Whitney Fox, that they were not convinced.

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The commissioners also made it clear that they did not want the buses to travel beyond 75th Avenue near Corey Avenue - short of Gulf Boulevard, all of its businesses, hotels and restaurants, and the beach itself.

Then Forward Pinellas executive director Whit Blanton burst out of his seat at the rear of the commission chambers to interrupt.

"This is the must-do, No. 1 priority project in Pinellas County," he said. "There is a bigger picture than this small beach community."

That's because it would become the first rapid bus service in Pinellas County, and the Tampa Bay region. The St. Pete Beach audience protested loudly. Blanton ignored them, adding rapid bus service is "important to the whole county."

The commission suggested that the city could operate smaller-sized transit vehicles that would pick up rapid bus service passengers at 75th Avenue and take them to their destinations, Blanton said an extra transfer point would "kill" the project.

After the meeting, Blanton was more conciliatory. He said the bus authority would be willing to keep negotiating with the city because they do not want an "angry" St. Pete Beach.

He also stressed that the project won't cost the city anything. Gulf Boulevard is a state road, the beach access park where the buses would use to turn around is owned by the county, and the city is not being asked to contribute any funding.

The new bus route is expected to cost about $40 million, an amount that would be funded up to 50 percent by the federal government, 25 percent by the county and the remainder by "local fund" of either public or private money.

"We don't need St. Pete Beach," Blanton said, except as a destination.

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The bus authority's plan calls for dedicating special lanes for most of bus route, running from downtown St. Petersburg along First avenues N and S. The buses would then turn onto Pasadena Avenue S and travel down Gulf Boulevard. The 40-foot long buses would serve a number of stops along Gulf Boulevard ending at the county's beach access park. They would run every 15 minutes, and would be in addition to two trolley buses operating on Gulf Boulevard at any given hour.

Bus authority officials have argued that rapid bus service would reduce car traffic, enhance property values, reduce taxes and allow residents and tourists to entertain themselves both on the beach and in downtown St. Petersburg for $5 or less round trip.

Meanwhile, St. Pete Beach officials are waiting for the city manager to return from vacation to re-open "round two" of negotiations with the bus authority.

"I'm just trying to make this work instead of just saying 'no'," said commissioner and former mayor Ward Friszolowski.

Mayor Alan Johnson repeatedly asked Fox and her colleagues if a bus rapid service terminus at 75th Avenue was still an "option" but he did not get an answer. Nor could anyone answer his question whether the current trolley service from St. Petersburg could be used to test the need for a rapid transit system.

Correction: A round trip on the new bus route would cost $5 or less, according to the PSTA. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect cost.

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