Forward Pinellas Division Manager Al Bartolotta is retiring next month after a 32-year career in urban planning. He started with the Pinellas County Planning Department in 1988, where he worked on assignments for both land use and transportation planning, and joined Forward Pinellas in 2015 as a result of the Pinellas Planning Council/Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) merger.
AE. What are your thoughts as your career is winding down?
AB. The first thought that comes to mind is how fortunate I’ve been to be able to come to work every day and be part of a team directing its energies toward making our community a better place to live, work and play. For someone who believes in the importance of civic engagement like I do that’s as good as it gets.
AE. What has been most rewarding about your career?
AB. It’s nice to travel around the county and see the results of the work I was involved in making an impact in the community. Sections of the Pinellas Trail, the Brooker Creek Preserve, the 49th Street Criminal Courts/Jail Complex, and US 19 in mid-county are some of the projects that come to mind that I had a small part in helping to bring to construction.
There’s also our Transportation Disadvantaged Program which has directed critical funding to local agencies like Neighborly Care Network, PARC and PSTA. They’re providing life sustaining transportation every day to the elderly and disabled and low income people through this program. I was part of the team that kept it going in its early years when we had to continually adjust our service model to respond to state budget cuts.
AE. Are there any particular projects you worked on that stand out?
AB. One of the most rewarding projects I worked on was the development of a model land development code for livable community design in 2008. This was intended to provide a tool for local governments to adopt land development and building codes that create safer and more accessible environments for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users. We received a Future of the Region award for the project from the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.
A more recent project worth mentioning was the 34th Street South Lane Re-purposing Study that was completed last year. It was a partnership effort involving the City of St. Petersburg, FDOT and the Skyway Marina District (SMD) neighborhood organization. FDOT agreed to designate the outside vehicle lanes for bus use and to install wide sidewalks on both sides of the road as part of an upcoming resurfacing project. The project presented a unique opportunity to work with a citizen’s group that shared a progressive vision for how to reshape its community in a meaningful way.
AE. What’s the most significant change you’ve seen in your career?
AB. When I first started with the county the standard approach to addressing traffic backlogs was to widen roads. Much of that was due to the state’s concurrency management requirements and the need to achieve acceptable level of service (LOS) standards for vehicles when designing road improvements. Over time, those involved in capital improvement planning have come to understand that in most cases major investments of infrastructure expansion is not a cost-effective option for mitigating traffic congestion. That’s reflected in the way the emphasis in the planning and designing of our roads has shifted from vehicle capacity and LOS, to safety and mobility for all road users, including pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users.
There’s also been a major shift in how we look at land development. Land development codes applied by local governments in the county has historically followed an auto-centric suburban design approach with segregated and disconnected land use patterns. Local governments have begun to adopt new code standards to allow for increased mixed use development and more pedestrian friendly design, which is critical for encouraging bicycling, walking and transit use while reducing the need for people to drive.
AE. From an urban planning perspective, what do you see as the biggest challenges facing Pinellas County in the years to come?
AB. A lack of funding for transportation improvements is a challenge that never goes away. This situation will only get worse in the coming year as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the economy. The funding issue is especially critical for transit. PSTA remains woefully underfunded and its existing sources of revenue aren’t sufficient to cover their current level of service beyond the next few years. We are in desperate need of a funding commitment to sustain and expand our transit system.
The shortage of affordable housing for working and poor people in the county is a huge problem as well. The median home price in the county is about $280 thousand and median rent for a one bedroom apartment is about $1,200 per month. That’s not affordable to most people who live here and most affordable housing programs, although critically important, don’t go far enough to put much of a dent in the problem.
Another challenge we face is the inequity of resources that exist in our disadvantaged neighborhoods. We need to do a better job of engaging residents of these areas in dialogue and working with them to improve their access to healthy foods, reliable public transit, and educational and employment opportunities.
Lastly, as a low-lying peninsula in a subtropical climate, sea level rise and climate disruption presents an immense challenge for our county. The scale of this challenge will require a coordinated regional approach to address these threats in a comprehensive way and to prepare our elected officials for the hard decisions to come regarding the investment of resources.