ST. PETERSBURG — Users of Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s buses have enjoyed free rides since March 2020 due to COVID-19, but that ended July 5, unless they transitioned to the new Flamingo Fares system.
PSTA Board of Directors approved a new fare system June 23 as well as several changes including the ability to continue to ride free using Flamingo Fares through Aug. 31.
Flamingo Fares uses a smart card that functions as a digital ticket via a plastic card or a card-free app. Both can be reloaded and used repeatedly. For now the cards are free, but will cost $3 starting Sept. 1. The app is free.
The $3 will cover the cost of producing the smart cards and encourage customers to keep them, according to Cassandra Borchers, PSTA’s chief development officer.
Cards are available at the PSTA customer service window. The app can be downloaded at flamingofares.com. Riders with a card are encouraged to register it at the website, which is where you can reload it (add money to your account) when fares go into effect on Sept. 1.
Flamingo Fares also is in use in Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and Sarasota counties.
One of the features of the new contactless system is fare capping, Borchers said. Fare capping is an option that allows a customer to load money into an account to be used as stored value on a smartcard or mobile app.
As a customer pays per trip, the fares paid accumulate in the account and once they reach $5 in a day, the customer earns a $5 day pass and rides for the rest of that day are free.
PSTA also will offer monthly fare capping. Once a customer has paid $70 in a calendar month, they will earn a monthly pass, which can be done in as little as 14 days.
Customers eligible for reduced fares will be offered fare capping at reduced rates, Borchers said. The first card will be free for Transportation Disadvantaged riders, but replacement cards will cost $3.
The existing magnetic stripe cards will no longer be sold, but will continue to be accepted through Dec. 31.
Borchers said staff was working to make Flamingo Fares cards available for purchase at retail stores located in minority and low-income populations in the future, including 7-Elevens and Amscot. However several directors objected to using the pay-day lender, Amscot. Borchers said she would look for alternatives.
Another change approved was an increase in age for free rides for school-aged children from age 5 to age 8. The policy also would change to allow free rides when accompanied by a fare paying passenger as opposed to an adult.
Directors discussed safety concerns about young passengers and responsibility for bus drivers.
CEO Brad Miller said the policy now allows children of any age to ride the bus. The change applies only to the age at which they can ride free and the change from with an adult, to a fare-paying passenger, such as a sibling.
Director Janet Long, a county commissioner, said safety of young riders was a matter of perspective, pointing out that in other places children use public transportation to get to school and other places.
“It’s part of the culture,” she said.
“It’s important to remember, there is a child standing on the sidewalk waiting to get on the bus and if we don’t let them on the bus, they’ll still be standing on the sidewalk,” said Board Chair Pat Gerard, another county commissioner, adding that could be a dangerous situation.
PSTA participates in A Safe Place, which is where youth under age 18 can go to seek help. Bus drivers are trained to assist them. In the last five years, 15 children have been helped by a bus driver who called law enforcement to aid with getting them to safety.
Director Joshua Shulman, citizen representative from St. Petersburg, said he had a financial concern with changing the age from 5 to 8. He said the policy had been enacted to help families with young children better afford to use public transit.
Borchers reviewed some of the impacts of Flamingo Fares including an initial loss in revenue of about $305,000 annually. However, PSTA should see savings of about $175,000 in reduced fare collection costs.
In addition, ridership and trip generation data from the new system will allow better route development, service planning and customer service.