Riders line up to board the popular PSTA beach trolley at a stop at John’s Pass in Madeira Beach.
While the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Board is moving forward with plans to improve local service and better connect to the rest of Tampa Bay, its first priority is maintaining current levels of service.
But, record ridership and higher-than-ever demand is putting a strain on finances.
The PSTA board agreed Jan. 23 to ask Pinellas County Commissioners to authorize adding a referendum to the November 2014 election ballot that would ask voters to approve a transit improvement sales tax.
“We are at a point where we either ask the county to put a referendum for a new funding source on the ballot or start planning to drastically cut bus service,” PSTA CEO Brad Miller told the board.
Miller estimated that PSTA would be forced to cut up to 30 percent of its bus service by 2016 if more money didn’t come in to pay to keep its buses on the road.
However, despite recent media reports, the board did not talk about a specific sales tax amount or any projects the money would fund, according to PSTA Manager of community relations Bob Lasher.
Lasher said in an interview Jan. 24 that the bigger priority is keeping the buses running.
Lasher said projections show that property tax revenue, which currently funds a large portion of PSTA’s budget, would remain flat until at least 2018, while operating expenses would continue to increase. He said the board wanted to make public aware of its request for a different way to fund transit as early as possible to allow everyone to have a say in the matter.
“We want the public fully involved,” he said. “We want this vetted so we can find out how best to serve the public. We didn’t want to be accused of coming up with anything last minute or the public saying they weren’t involved in the decision.”
He said regardless of any future changes in transit, not enough money is coming in to pay for operational expenses, such as fuel, insurance and labor costs.
“There is a widening gap between revenue and expenses, and we need to add additional funding just to cover that,” he said. “Then we need to look to providing for future needs. Whether that is by adding more bus service or bus and rail has not been determined.”
Dunedin City Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski, who also serves on the PSTA board, said Jan 23, “This is just the first step in the process and all we’re doing today is asking the county if they’ll give us permission to ask voters.”
Four of the county’s seven commissioners serve on the PSTA board, Commissioners Susan Latvala, Janet Long, Norm Roche and Ken Welch.
“I truly believe that this comes down to a quality of life issue for citizens in Pinellas County,” Long said. “The infrastructure in our community is not the best that it can be and our citizens deserve better than that. We cannot afford to stay stuck in the moment and it’s time to plan for the future.”
Latvala agreed, saying, “This is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”
The board also stressed the need to continue work on a comprehensive transit plan to present to the voters well ahead of the referendum.
PSTA Chair Jeff Danner, who also is a member of the St. Petersburg City Council, said the public would be a part of the planning for improved transit services.
“This will be a full countywide, multi-modal transit plan that we will be refining with the help of the community over the next year and a half,” he said.
Community bus plan and public input
County residents can participate in the ongoing Pinellas Community Bus Plan, which is an in-depth study of the PSTA bus system.
The study is a way to find strengths, areas for improvement and get suggestions on how to improve efficiency and increase ridership. Officials want to gain more information about the needs of residents, workers and visitors.
One way to participate is to fill out an online survey available at busplan.psta.net or via the Quick Links on the home page at PSTA.net. Look for the Pinellas Community Bus Plan link on the bottom of the left side.
Survey questions begin with basic demographics, where you live, sex, age, basic household income and the question “have you ridden PSTA more than twice in the last year.”
General questions include whether PSTA provides an important service and whether it provides an adequate amount of public transit. Officials want to know if PSTA’s public image is good or poor or somewhere in between. They want to know if PSTA important and whether more or less should be invested to provide transit service in Pinellas County.
The survey asks participants where their closest bus stop is located. It asks them to choose from a preset list the main reason they don’t use transit and any other reasons a person might not choose to use the bus system. Reasons listed include having no service near your home or when you need it; takes too much time, not reliable, too many transfers, not safe, cost, the need to travel in a private car and others.
The next section allows the public to choose changes to bus service that would make them more or less likely to use PSTA. Next, participants are asked to select what routes they would most likely ride.
Another section asks the public to agree or disagree with a number of statements including that PSTA can get you where you need to go. Officials want to know if the public thinks it is easy to make connections, if the service is time efficient, if it is safe, convenient, a benefit to the community and more.
The survey asks participants to prioritize future transit investments. Choice include making transfers easier, starting service earlier or ending service later, decreasing wait time, improving pedestrian access, making travel quicker, increasing reliability, increasing connectivity outside the county, serving more places and direct service to key destinations.
The final page contains a box where people can write out what they think PSTA can do to better inform the public. There is also a space to explain what you think PSTA can do to improve service to make it more likely you would become a more frequent rider in the future. There is a third box for any additional comments. Lastly, there is an opportunity to provide your name and an email address to receive updates on the bus plan and other news about PSTA’s service.
Officials will use the information to come up with a plan that includes recommendations for improvements that can be done quickly, within one to three years, as well as short-term options that can be done in four to six years. Planning also will include mid-term solutions to be done in seven to 10 years and long-term alternatives that could take as long as 15 to 25 years to implement.
Officials expect to have results of the local study wrapped up by late spring or early summer, Lasher said. At that time, they’ll begin incorporating the information into the overall bus plan to improve service. Lasher said a top complaint is that it takes too long to get to a destination because there are too many stops. He said some believe more express routes with limited stops are needed.
Residents also can send in feedback about bus service using forms on the PSTA website. Look for the Contact Us link on the far right of the top menu. Select the Customer Comment Form and then choose either the general comment form or the complaint/commendation form.
Lasher said people can use the forms to request additional bus stops, which sometimes can be done immediately, or inform staff of problems, such as a bench turned over or trash at a stop. They can even turn in a rude driver.
“We’re in the business of service – that’s No. 1,” Lasher said. “We want people to be involved.”
PSTA, HART merger
PSTA is continuing work with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority on a Consolidation Study, as mandated by the state legislature. The study is looking at ways to consolidate resources to cut costs and improve service for both organizations.
The PSTA board voted Jan. 14 to follow recommendations from the study that included conducting a more extensive and in-depth desk audit. PSTA advocates asking the state legislature to fund the additional study. HART does not support the desk audit or asking for funding.
“PSTA always has and will continue to support any measure that improves regional transit,” Danner said Jan. 14. “We look forward to continuing the collaborative efforts forged with our various transportation partners throughout the bay area. We have already identified ways to improve efficiencies and service and look forward to putting those in place along with finding new ones as we move forward.”
HART and PSTA met Jan. 28 to go over the Consolidation Study, which must be delivered to state legislators by Feb. 1. The next steps remain to be seen, but will most likely include continued work by both agencies to find common solutions to improving transit service for Tampa Bay.
Lasher said PSTA and HART have worked together since at least 2005, which is the year he started work for PSTA. He said the routes that link Pinellas and Hillsborough are funded by a special state grant that provides commuter service across the bay during rush hour. Unfortunately, ridership is “light,” he said.
Regardless, PSTA remains committed to supporting transit in Pinellas and throughout Tampa Bay, he said.
Good planning makes a difference
When the recession hit in 2008, PSTA had to make some difficult adjustments. Lasher said staff poured over ridership data and looked at every single bus run to see the effects before making changes. He said it is always difficult to make cuts to routes because for some people the bus is the only way they have to get where they need to go.
Fortunately, good planning helped with a difficult situation. Lasher said officials at PSTA are constantly planning and have plans going out to the year 2050.
“We’re regularly reviewing routes and making in-depth analysis to realign service to need,” he said.
But, making changes is not easy to do, considering 22 municipalities pay for PSTA service and expect to get their equal share, Lasher said.
“From 2008 to 2010, we made some tough choices,” he said. “People rely on us. They’re dependent on us. But there is not a big enough investment in local transit to meet all the needs. We can’t provide service late nights or on the weekends. We need to put transit where people ride it.”
To do that requires a new funding source. Tourism is Pinellas County’s No. 1 industry and tourists provide a big boost to PSTA’s ridership, especially along the beaches. Having a transit sales tax would allow tourists to help fund transit improvements, Lasher said.
Moving from funding transit through ad valorem to using a transit sales tax would remove a “big chunk off the county’s back,” Lasher said.
“It would spread out the burden and a percentage would be picked up by the tourists with their sales tax money coming in,” he said.
Lasher said it is important for the public to realize that fares cannot fund transit service although Pinellas pays for more of its costs with fares than most other places.
“There is nowhere in the world where transit pays for itself,” he said.
The federal government pays for the buses, which are designed to run 12 years. Public transit authorities, such as PSTA and HART, are responsible for the cost of fuel, operational costs, labor, insurance and maintenance.
PSTA operates 24/7 with staff cleaning, fueling and servicing buses getting them ready to go back on the road the next day. Buses are on the road, depending on the route, as early as 6 a.m. and some continue to nearly midnight.
“We’re working all the time so we can be ready to do our job, which is providing the best transit service we can,” Lasher said.
But increasing costs and decreasing revenues are creating limitations.
“We need a different funding source to move forward,” Lasher said. “The alternative is cuts to service, which won’t get us where we need to go.”