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Friday, Aug 22, 2014

Pinellas transit plan follows line of failed proposals

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CLEARWATER -

If old-school Pinellas rail fans had their druthers, a 38-mile monorail system would be snaking through the county this very minute.

Part of a planned transportation overhaul, the monorail line would have run along elevated track between Clearwater, the Gateway area, downtown St. Petersburg and the south Pinellas beaches.

The monorail plan, which surfaced repeatedly between the early 1970s and the 2000s, was never built and is part of a legacy of failed transit projects in Pinellas County.

Now, voters are set to vote on another transit plan next year – one that could raise the sales tax by as much as a penny to pay for light rail, improved bus lines and other transportation improvements. Unlike all the other plans pitched over the past four decades, though, this one is the first to come before voters.

County planners have spent years putting together the plan, with hopes of stemming gridlock – just like all those other plans.

An assortment of circumstances mostly bureaucratic, but some political scuttled those other plans. But observers say things are different today because the county is different.

“Part of it, I think, is that [the] demographics of Pinellas have really changed,” said University of South Florida St. Petersburg political science professor emeritus Darryl Paulson.

Chief among those changes is that the population is younger and made up of an increasing number of Democrats, in a county traditionally dominated by Republicans.

“There’s no doubt there’s a political difference between Republicans and Democrats with respect to mass transit,” Paulson said.

The first push for rail began more than four decades ago, bolstered by a $1-million federal grant, said former county planning director Brian Smith.

“The first rail discussion that actually occurred was in 1972, and that was actually going pretty far,” Smith said. “That had a lot of traction to it.”

Politics got in the way, though. Hillsborough and Pasco counties didn’t give the needed support the monorail project, which was ultimately supposed to link into similar systems across the bay.

“There was a lot of politics going on back then,” Smith said. “We were pretty far along, and others hadn’t really gotten there.”

Talk of rail would heat up when gas prices spiked, but vocal support remained dormant for years, said environmental activist Cathy Harrelson, who still laments what could have been.

“When we talked about rail in 1983, imagine what it would have cost back then,” she said.

Several years later, Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough received federal money to run heavier commuter rail along old CSX tracks that run throughout the region. Even if that hadn’t fallen through, though, the heavier trains that would have run along those tracks wouldn’t have suited Pinellas County’s compact population, Smith said. Commuter rail tends to run with longer distances between stops.

Pinellas went back to the monorail idea with the plan of testing ridership numbers via rapid bus lines between downtown St. Petersburg and Clearwater and their respective beaches. Then, a monorail system would have been built along those bus corridors, ultimately forming a loop. But the federal government changed the grant criteria for rail proposals in the 1990s, forcing the Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization to start over. By the time the new proposal was ready for the ballot in 2007, it would have gone on the same year as Penny for Pinellas, and both would have increased the county’s sales tax. After that, the souring economy didn’t bode well for self-imposed tax increases, Smith said.

Despite the county’s repeated attempts at rail, supporters say the political and economic conditions are right for such a measure to pass in 2014. Visible grassroots support has mobilized through social media, public awareness of carbon emissions has increased and Pinellas’ younger population and an improved economy could tip the scales, advocates said.

“Timing is everything,” Harrelson said.

But even as the political winds appear to be shifting, an anti-rail group, which grew largely out of the tea party movement that helped overturn a similar initiative in Hillsborough County, has been vocal in its opposition. Groups such as No Tax for Tracks have argued against the rail plan, chiefly as a bad pocketbook issue.

“The primary political reason is money,” Paulson said.

That’s especially true for Pinellas County’s many retirees living on fixed incomes.

“These are people who came to this area primarily looking not only for Florida sunshine but also low taxes,” Paulson said.

kbradshaw@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7999

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