Transit Tourism – St. Petersburg/Clearwater FLPosted: July 2, 2012
(This is the first in a semi-regular series I will start posting here at TransitZac. Soon, I will have the long promised posts about my transit adventures from early March ’12.)
On Thursday, June 28th, I had the chance to go west across Tampa Bay to the other side of the metro area, in Pinellas County, to ride the local transit agency, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) and see how things operate over there. Joining me (or rather, leading the journey) was fellow transit nerd and HART bus driver Jason Eames, aka @yobusdriver3507.
Starting our journey at Marion Transit Center in downtown Tampa, we boarded PSTA’s Route 100X. This route, along with PSTA’s other express route, 300X, are operated with a fleet of 10 2003 MCI D4500’s. My memory fails me a bit on this detail, but I believe we rode on unit #2307. While enroute to the western terminus, Gateway Mall, I mainly just watched the road and enjoyed the scenery, as this was the first time I’d ever been across the Gandy Bridge. Jason chatted with the driver about bus driver stuff (for lack of a better term) in the meantime. Other than us, there was just one passenger onboard the bus. (While the bus runs in both directions, the peak emphasis is on Tampa during AM and Pinellas County during PM). At Gateway Mall that other passenger disembarked, while we remained onboard, as the bus driver had kindly offered to let us remain on while he deadheaded back to PSTA’s base.
While I had scoped out PSTA’s base a bit beforehand, courtesy of Google Maps, I was still pleasantly surprised at how modern it seemed when we rolled in. If there was one thing I’d would have to pick as my favorite feature, I would have to say it was the lane parking. More common at big city agencies, the buses park in the bus yard with designated lanes rather than parking spots (sort of reminiscent of a train yard). Personally, I think this is a method HART will have to seriously consider for their base as they continue to reach the upper limits of their yard capacity. In PSTA’s yard, there was only a handful of buses parked (by my count, about 6 or 7), which would suggest that the agency might be due for some additional units. Of course, when we walked around to the backside of the maintinance bays, there were about 10 buses parked and 6 or so on hoists, so I suppose that can be left open to interpretation. Before we left the base, we stopped inside the Admin office, which is where we ended up getting a chance to meet PSTA’s Cyndi Raskin-Schmitt, the main voice behind PSTA’s social media efforts on Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress.
Directly next to base is 34th Street Transfer Center, where is where we went to catch our next bus, Route 52. As we were walking out to the TC, we saw the bus we wanted pulling away. Since we had time on our hands though, it wasn’t a huge deal. In the meantime, it gave us a chance to toy around with a new toy that PSTA recently got: Real Time. Though it’s been in testing for a few months now, it was officially taken out of beta status just a couple weeks ago and is running at 100% now. The system allows riders to see where their bus is and when it’ll arrive at their stop. Riders have a number of ways to get the info, including by computer, text message, and phone call. (It’s not clear at this point if there will be a smartphone app for this system, though my understanding is that smartphones can access the same features available to computer users.) At the transit centers, there are digital display boards with scrolling info, with some showing all times for the TC and some showing platform-specific times, depending on the TC. (Example, 34th St TC had all departures while Grand Central Station had platform-specific). When Jason first tried using the text feature, the system replied with a user agreement. The basic summary I got was that by using the system, you agree that PSTA is not liable for any costs of the text messages you are choosing to send/recieve. I don’t know if this is a common practice for tracking apps or not, but I’m not surprised by it. The first stop number Jason sent in was 6533, which was the platform at 34th Street TC for Route 97 and Route 98, both peak-hour commuter routes. The system replied with no data. The reason for that is that the system only gives real-time info in a 30-min window, which is pretty typical for transit-tracking apps. However, the next number he tried, 6570, did work. This number was the platform at the TC for Rt. 52. It returned with a text saying that Rt. 52 to Clearwater was due in 17 minutes, which accurately reflected the same thing we saw on the digital reader board right above the platform shelter. So, with nothing else to do, we took a look at the system map and continued to plan out our day on the bus.
Though the real-time data said that the bus was due in at 9:45, the bus was actually 2 mins late by my count. I didn’t notice anything reflecting this on the digital display board and didn’t think much of it at the time, but now I wonder how/if PSTA is communicating late buses to passengers accessing the real-time data. The bus had good reason to be late though, as it was pretty packed when we got on. Though we were able to find an empty bench to sit on, it was plainly obvious that Route 52 is a veryhigh ridership route. (Unless I’m mistaken, this is on PSTA’s list of routes that may be considered for service-enhancements and/or BRT.) Along the way, I kept an eye on the road watching the stops and where people were getting on/off. It does seem that PSTA has done a better job with stop spacing than HART has, and I also like that many of their stops are put on the farside of the intersection. (I know Jason liked this as well.) Not so surprisingly, some stops also had Jaycee Benches (I recommend a Google search if you’re unfamiliar; I will have a post about these in the near future), but they didn’t seem as common as they are in Hillsborough County. Studying the system map along the way, we saw that the 52 had an odd looking deviation off the route right as soon as it started to turn westbound on Roosevelt Blvd. However, when we got to the stop at the south end of the deviation (next to Pinellas Technical Education Center) and saw 6 people waiting for the bus, I think the case was easily made for that deviation. Further down the route was another deviation, and this one is a bit harder to make a case for I think. On select trips between 8AM-6:30PM, the 52 deviates through a senior-citizen apartment complex, Imperial Palms. Now, I’ll admit that I’ve seen weird things at different transit agencies, but this deviation is definetely on my “Top 10” list. The road travelled through the complex was like that of any other apartment complex in the US, with a narrow unmarked roadway and cars parked on either side. The bus also had to “slow roll” through it, as there was a posted speed limit of 10mph. The stop spacing wasn’t exactly something to marvel at either, as you can see on this map of the area. I’ve got nothing against agencies making it easier for riders to use transit, but I really do think that this is a deviation that PSTA could and should do away with.
At the 52’s EOL, Park Street Terminal in Downtown Clearwater, is where we disembarked. While waiting for our next bus, Jason snapped a few pictures of a “SmartBus.” SmartBus is PSTA’s special branding effort for their fleet of 24 hybrids, all Gillig BRT HEV’s. Simple enough, I give PSTA a lot of credit for their branding effort with these buses.
Still at Park Street Terminal is where we boarded our next bus, the Suncoast Beach Trolley. Obviously catered towards tourists, the route stretches almost the entirety of Pinellas County’s barrier island beaches. The route uses Gillig Replica Trolley’s in the 35ft length, with some painted yellow and some painted blue. (PSTA is the first agency I’ve ever seen with the blue units, HART is the only other agency I’ve seen with yellow units. NFTA [Buffalo NY] also has green units.) Inside the trolley unit, it was painfully obvious that PSTA had updated the interior after the original purchase. Instead of the factory-option wooden benches and twine pull cords, the bus had seats and pull-cords like that of any other average transit bus. This was confirmed by a passenger sitting near us, who was a pretty regular rider of the route and PSTA in general. The passenger also mentioned to us how the route didn’t have any stops in the municipalities of Belleair Beach and Belleair Shore. He said it was because these were high-income areas with a pretty anti-transit poplace. It’s not unusual for a bus route to run through a municipality without stopping, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a thing happen on a tourist-oriented route like this one.
At the EOL in Pass-A-Grille, we disembarked the Suncoast Beach Trolley and waited for PSTA’s other trolley route, the Central Avenue Trolley. While also designed to cater toward tourists, this route is also a crucial piece of PSTA’s network. Running the length of the southern edge of Pinellas County, the route stretches all the way from Pass-A-Grille in the west to downtown St. Petersburg and The Pier in the east. Like the trolley we rode on the Suncoast Beach Trolley route, the interior of this trolley had also been modernized. However, the key difference was that this trolley was also a hybrid. I originally thought PSTA only had 2 of these units, but I’ve since found out that they actually have 6 of these units. Unlike a typical Gillig hybrid, the battery pack and other pieces of the system sit inside the trolley roof facade. Unless you know the fleet well enough, you’d be none the wiser that the trolley was actually a hybrid trolley. Something else interesting about the Central Avenue Trolley was it’s fare structure. Explained on the route’s map/schedule, it has pay-as-you-leave/pay-as-you-enter and zones thrown together into one big mess. Personally, I think PSTA needs to just set a single base fare for the entire route ($.50-1.00?) and leave it at that. During our ride on the CAT most of the passenger load seemed to be local residents, though there was also a family from the Midwest that had made the same transfer between trolley routes that we did. We also saw a woman get on who, in the most polite way, didn’t smell that great. Along the way, the route passed through two different PSTA transit hubs, Grand Central Station and Williams Park. The former was designed as an actual transit center (and I’ll have more to say on it later), while the latter is more of a transfer point next to a city park. By the time we got to The Pier, it was just myself and Jason on the bus. At that point, we decided to disembark and poke around the area a little bit. It was at the top of The Pier, on the observation deck, where Jason managed to get some pictures of another bus route that serves The Pier, St. Petersburg’s Downtown Looper. While a completely seperate operation from PSTA, I do give them credit for including the route on their system map via it’s own inset. Just for posterity, we ended up riding the Downtown Looper from The Pier to the parking lots right next to the waterfront.
After a nice lunch of Publix subs, we evntually made our way back towards Grand Central Station via Route 4 and Route 18. Originally opened in 2002 as Central Plaza Intermodal Terminal (and renamed in 2009), Grand Central Station is a key transit center in the PSTA system. However, the transit center’s inherent problem is the way it was designed. It is unusual for a transit hub to be designed around a circle, but the circle wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the designers had made the drive lanes wider. On multiple occasions, we watched as buses would have to reverse out of their bay just to get around the bus in front of them, and it became clear that if even just one bus were to get stuck somewhere in that transit center, at least half of it would become immobilized. The one thing I’ll give the designers credit for was constructing it with more than one in/out location, but that may have been more so out of obvious neccessity.
As we were about ready to call it a day on riding buses, we had to decide which bus we wanted to catch from Grand Central Station in order to connect with Route 300X back to downtown Tampa. With about 4 or 5 different routes to choose from, it was hard to decide. When we saw Route 11 roll into Grand Central Station with a headsign display saying it was heading for 34th Street TC, we decided right then and there to grab that bus. Looking back, I’m glad that we did. Running from the southern edge of the county to the central part, this route seems to be one of PSTA’s quieter routes based on the passenger load that we saw. Along the way, the route travelled along 28 St N, a quiet neighborhood thoroughfare. The road became especially quiet north of the transfer point at the Shoppes at Park Place, where there was little to no development whatsoever. It did make us wonder why the route was serving the area to begin with, but it seemed to make sense in the overall structure of the route, and there isn’t another road that the route would be able to better serve anyways. Along the way, I had to ask the driver what time the bus was due to arrive at 34th Street TC, as there were no schedules for Route 11 available on the bus. The driver told me he was due in at 4:35PM, and I mentioned that it would leave us plenty of time to catch the 300X leaving at 5:20PM. The bus driver was convinced that we would have enough time to catch the 4:20PM trip. As it turned out, he was right. After passing through Carillon Office Park and turning westbound onto Ulmerton Road, he let us off at this stop so that we could get across the street to the opposite stop. Unfortunately, the opposite stop wasn’t actually a 300X stop, so we had to backtrack just a little bit and get to the stop east of the intersection of Ulmerton/Egret. Time wasn’t a huge issue, but we did keep a sharp eye behind us to make sure we wouldn’t get passed up by the 300X. Jason wasn’t too worried, because if we did miss it he said we could just go hang out at the nearby Starbucks and wait for the next bus.
Sadly for Starbucks and their cash registers, the 300X ended up pulling into the stop a few minutes after we walked up to it. After driving over the Howard Frankland Bridge (not Franklin!) and spending some time stuck in peak-hour traffic, we got back to Marion Transit Center just over an hour after first boarding the bus in Pinellas County. For $3 per ride on the 100X/300X and $4.50 for an all-day PSTA pass, I’d say it was a heckuva bargain for a transit adventure!
Some other thoughts/observations about PSTA:
- Unlike HART, PSTA drivers shut down their buses on layovers. Also quite interesting is that the drivers will shut the doors on the bus if they step away from it.
- The driver from our ride on the Suncoast Beach Trolley said that PSTA drivers had union representation from TBARTA. Who would’ve thought they were a union too? (I don’t think that driver had all his info right.)
- If one of PSTA’s biggest strengths is the new Real-Time system, then one of their biggest weaknesses is their route maps. Quite frankly, they’re pretty bad, and can be rather useless to someone who doesn’t have much familiarity with any of the bus routes.
I mentioned a couple times through this post how Jason was taking various photos along the course of the day. I’d highly recommend checking them out on his Flickr page, as he got a lot of good shots (and some not so awesome shots of your’s truly).
As always, comments and thoughts are welcome below, or send me a tweet to @ziggzagzac. Thanks for reading!
UPDATE: Jason finished his own post on the adventure. He focuses more on the operational aspects of PSTA, but of course I’d highly recommend reading it. Also, thank you to Walt Slupecki (another Tampa Bay transit blogger) for featuring this post on the Tampa Bay Transit blog.