ST. PETE BEACH – Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority officials are going down the wrong road with the city of St. Pete Beach, by ignoring its request to modify service along the Pass-A-Grille route.
During their regular meeting Sept. 11, city commissioners unanimously ratified a second one-year renewal to continue PSTA bus service, while at the same time voicing strong reservations and concerns about how they say the city is being treated.
Commissioners also talked about seeking alternative transportation vendors to provide bus service and eventually putting the brakes on its contract with PSTA, if their concerns are not addressed.
In 2016, cities of St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island entered into an agreement to jointly fund bus and trolley service between their two cities.
As part of this second contract renewal St. Pete Beach will pay PSTA $568,978 a year to provide bus and trolley service, with Treasure Island charged $283,147; the cost represents a 33-67 percent split between the two cities based on travel miles. The contract represents a 7 percent increase over the previous agreement.
As part of the fee, Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach are also billed for DART Paratransit. Treasure Island accounts for 70 percent of the cost of the DART service with St. Pete Beach at 30 percent. This split varies from year to year based on actual ridership. The cost to Treasure Island is $6,266, with St. Pete Beach billed $2,685.
St. Pete Beach Mayor Al Johnson noted the cost to his city would be much more expensive, over $1 million, if it was part of the countywide PSTA bus system, so it is really a good deal.
A week earlier, during a work session, Treasure Island commissioners strongly endorsed the joint venture, saying the city was getting a very good deal, as compared to if it was a member of countywide PSTA. Treasure Island commissioners will vote on the contract renewal on Sept. 18.
Meanwhile, St Pete Beach Commissioner Melinda Pletcher said $250,000 of her city’s portion of the new contract, providing bus service south of the Don CeSar Hotel into Pass-A-Grille, is not worth the expense. She said her district in Pass-A-Grille is getting service “we don’t need or want.”
During a May City Commission meeting, St. Pete Beach officials voiced displeasure with that portion of the route to PSTA CEO Brad Miller. This week they said their concerns and requests have been largely ignored.
“I don’t know what we can do to get the service we want,” Pletcher said.
In May commissioners asked Miller for an alternative to utilizing buses south of the Don CeSar to provide service into Pass-A-Grille. They objected to large buses traversing narrow streets with few passengers, drivers leaving designated routes and even blocking traffic to backup, or sometimes stop and get coffee.
At that meeting Miller said they looked at using smaller vans along the route but could not find ones that were ADA accessible. Once PSTA acquires smaller airport type shuttles it could provide them for the Pass-A-Grille area.
Commissioners said in subsequent months the PSTA has dropped the issue.
“They should give us the service we want, buses and trolleys don’t make any sense along the Pass-A-Grille route,” Pletcher said.
Commissioner Terri Finnerty noted “if they are going to try to put in a regional transit system, they really need us more than we need them to get federal and state funding. It’s amazing they will not sit down to talk with us.”
She added providing service into Pass-A-Grille is important, even if it provides transportation for just one person to get to work.
Commissioners asked staff to convey their frustration over PSTA’s lack of attention to their concerns, as it relates to the Pass-A-Grille route.
They told staff if PSTA doesn’t start addressing the city’s concerns, St. Pete Beach should seek requests for proposals from other transit companies that can provide service. City Manager Wayne Saunders said he will relay the board’s concerns to PSTA officials.
In other action, city commissioners directed staff to enter into negotiations with Suntan Art Center, 3300 Gulf Blvd., to manage weekend exhibitions of artists at the Paradise Patio on Pass-A-Grille.
A group of local artists who display their creations on the Paradise Grille Patio, called the Paradise Bazaar, told commissioners they fear their vendors will be shut out of space by Art Center members.
Bev Jackson, Suntan Art Center president, told Paradise Bazaar members who attended the meeting; “we will work with you guys.”
Jackson said operating art exhibitions on the patio will help the nonprofit art center raise much needed funds.
However, Paradise Bazaar vendors told commissioners they fear being juried will shut out some of their vendors. They also objected to prospective vendors having to be Suntan Center members for insurance liability and state tax purposes.
Commissioner Melinda Pletcher said people are concerned that the jury process will be subjective. She said she wants to be “thoughtful to (Bazaar) artists who have been here 12 years.”
Mayor Al Johnson said, “I certainly don’t want to throw people, who have been there all these years, under the bus.”
The city manager said staff can draft an agreement with the Art Center that addresses the concerns and report back to the commission for approval.
Commissioners agreed to let staff negotiate an agreement that addresses artists’ concerns and allows the Art Center to manage weekend exhibitions.