PSTA sets tentative millage rate for FY 2019-2020

Deborah Leous, PSTA’s chief financial officer, presented the fiscal year 2019-2020 tentative millage rate for approval during the July 31 meeting. Later during the same meeting, she answered questions related to using too many extra audit services, which required more money to be approved for the contract.

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s Board of Directors said yes to a tentative millage rate of 0.7500 mills for fiscal year 2019-2020 during a July 31 meeting.

The rate is the same as the current year and the maximum rate the transit agency can charge by state statute, which caps the PSTA’s millage rate at 0.7500 mills.

The rate will appear on Truth in Millage Notices to be mailed out to property owners by the property appraiser on or around Aug. 20. PSTA could later decide to lower the millage rate, but it cannot be increased.

A mill is 1/1000 of a dollar. Property taxes are calculated by multiplying the taxable property value of by the number of mills levied.

Deborah Leous, chief financial officer, said the current millage rate would generate $3.88 million in additional revenue for next year due to increases in property values.

The tentative millage rate is higher than the rolled-back rate of 0.7026, which is the amount needed to generate the same revenue as the current year.

40-foot buses for Central Avenue BRT

Eight of nine directors agreed with staff’s recommendation to use 40-foot buses on its future 10-mile Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project, which will link downtown St. Petersburg to the beaches.

Director Richard Bennett, North Redington Beach commissioner, voted no.

Abhishek Dayal, director of project management, told directors that design on the project was nearing the 60% mark and it was time to consider what buses to purchase. The project will use nine buses that will provide 15-minute service from 6 a.m.-8 p.m. and every 30 minutes from 8 p.m.-midnight.

Prior plans called for using 60-foot hybrid-electric buses; however, due to recent objections from St. Pete Beach to the use of larger buses, 40-foot buses have been considered.

Dayal said PSTA had recently completed a ridership forecast to estimate anticipated loads on the buses to help determine an optimal size, 40-foot or 60-foot. Staff now believes 40-foot buses could meet the BRT project’s needs at least in the beginning.

Staff looked at seats available on both sizes. The 40-foot bus would provide 31 seats when no wheelchairs are present with room for four bikes inside. Standing room capacity would be 15, about 50% of capacity, which is the industry standard.

The 60-foot bus would provide 49 seats when no wheelchairs are present with room for four bikes. Standing room capacity would be 25. It would cost about $2 million more to use 60-foot buses, which would need to come from PSTA’s reserves.

Both sizes could accommodate two wheelchair riders, but the number of available seats would be reduced.

Staff estimates that passenger loads will be in the range of 31-36 during peak periods. During off-peak times, passenger loads are expected to average about 24. Staff said off-peak passenger loads occur on about 80% of bus trips.

Directors discussed whether the buses would be able to handle the demand for wheelchair riders and bicyclists. Dayal said the bus manufacturer might be able to make adjustments if needed.

To stay on schedule, buses have to be ordered by August. Dayal said staff would present information to directors at the Aug. 28 meeting at which time a final decision is needed.

Directors discussed using electric buses, instead of hybrid-electric ones. CEO Brad Miller said technology wasn’t available yet to support using electric buses on a route as long as the 10-mile Central Avenue BRT. It also would be much more costly and greatly affect design. He said it could be possible to move to electric buses in the future.

Meanwhile, work will continue to complete the project design by fall. Dayal also anticipates that a grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration would be available by fall.

October service changes

Directors Vince Cocks, citizen representative, and Keith Sabiel, Pinellas Park councilman, voted against staff’s plan for service changes beginning in October, which include removing the “flexing” option from the Dunedin/Palm Harbor, Countryside/Oldsmar/Tampa and Safety Harbor Connection routes.

Bob Lasher, external affairs officer, said the change had been driven primarily by riders.

Currently, riders can call up to two hours in advance and request that the bus pick them up or drop them off at the curb of their origin or destination as long as it is within 3/4 mile of the base route.

Although each bus trip is allowed to have only two deviations, those deviations, which Lasher said could take up to 30 minutes, have caused issues with on-time performance. Consequently, riders are unhappy with the reliability of the connector service.

Staff recommended putting a stop to the deviations, along with minor adjustments to the routes. They also would be renamed to numerical designations.

Starting in October, the Countryside/Oldsmar Tampa Connector will be known as Route 812 and it will be realigned back to Countryside Boulevard.

The Dunedin/Palm Harbor Connector will become Route 813. The downtown Dunedin loop will be shortened and the route will no longer serve Nebraska Avenue and U.S. 19.

The Safety Harbor Connection will become Route 814 with no other changes anticipated.

In addition, the Central Avenue Trolley service to Pass-a-Grille will be eliminated in October. Instead, the trolley will turn around at the county beach access park. Lasher said staff is currently working on a new trolley agreement with St. Pete Beach.

More audit money

Directors cautioned Leous to be more careful when using extra services available from PSTA’s auditing firm. Leous said Clifton Laron Alan LLP offered services PSTA had never had access to before from an auditing firm, and staff took advantage of those services.

PSTA awarded a contract to Clifton Larson Allen on Aug. 26, 2015 for $359,000 over five years. However, staff has already spent $342,500 of the contract amount and needs another $167,500 to pay for services this year, including the 2019 audit.

Directors approved the request with an 8-1 vote, which will bring the contract cost up to $509,000. Dave Eggers, Pinellas County commissioner, voted no.

Leous said the extra audits had saved money. She also talked about the importance of the cybersecurity assessment, which is one of the extra services.

PSTA Chair Janet Long, Pinellas County commissioner, asked Leous to prepare a report on savings from the extra services.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.