Reservations aside, St. Petersburg city council members unanimously approved a resolution stating that light rail is the city’s top choice for the transit alternative analysis update.
Without committing any taxpayer dollars, the council said it was willing to further discuss light rail plans in Pinellas County that could go from downtown St. Pete, across the Howard Franklin Bridge and into Tampa.
“We are stating that the locally preferred alternative is light rail over the Howard Franklin towards Hillsborough,” said council member Jeff Danner. The resolution continues the study of light rail.
Scott Pringle, Jacobs Engineering Group, made a presentation to city council on Thursday for the light rail alternative. He said the costs would be 50 percent local and then a 50 percent match among federal, state and private dollars that would be financed over 30 years.
According to Pringle, the 16 rail stations and 24 miles of transit rail would cost anywhere between $1.5 - $1.7 billion.
Pringle said benefits would be:
- $2.50 return on every $1 spent
- Thousands of jobs created over 30 years
- $4.2 billion estimate return to the community.
“We are being very aggressive,” Pringle said. “The costs of right-of-way are very dynamic and what it may be when the market comes back on line. The quicker you move towards implementation, the lower you’ll be towards the lower end of costs.”
Thursday’s arguments hinged on the rail’s financial sustainability and subsidization. Council member Jim Kennedy said the city and county taxpayers would always be footing the bill for the light rail.
“Light rail in is our best interest but we need to figure out the funding,” Kennedy said.
Council member Karl Nurse said that any transit options, such as roads, are subsidized by the taxpayers. “If you improve service, ridership goes up. It never pays for itself. Highways don’t pay for themselves, rail roads … the nature of transportation is that it has to be supported [by taxpayers].”
Nurse said the single best thing the city could do in the long term to improve the economy is improving mass transit.
“If our big ticket item is the Rays, the best thing we could do for the Rays is improve transit in the area,” Nurse added.
Pringle added that the mass transit provides capacity more efficiently over the long term than roads do. “It’s easier to add a car to a train than a lane to a road,” he said.
“I think about is the secondary benefits more than offset the investments,” said council member Charlie Gerdes.
Council member Steve Kornell agreed with the plan, but said the city would receive backlash if no rail station were placed in south St. Pete.
“South St. Pete, when you start excluding it, it pulls up a lot of history … old wounds will open back up,” Kornell said.
Danner cautioned council members not to get hung up on where the first light rail stations would be placed in St. Petersburg. He said the plan is being aggressive as-is and asking for more would indefinitely hold up the process.
“If we are going to do that here,” Danner said about arguing if south St. Pete should have a station, “we can fold up and quit now. “You’ve got to start somewhere and if we don’t go to our employment centers as this very aggressive first phase, you are never going to.”
The organization said the goal of the plan is have transit agencies come together to create a local transit plan for Pinellas County.
"PSTA, the Pinellas County MPO, TBARTA, and FDOT are seeking to complete an Alternatives Analysis (AA) study to select a Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) transit corridor for the Pinellas County study area.
The study will investigate connections between downtown St. Petersburg, Pinellas Gateway area, downtown Clearwater, and Hillsborough County."