PSTA says no to service cuts for now

PSTA Chair Janet Long explains that PSTA is “terribly, terribly underfunded” during an April 24 public hearing on services cuts. The board of directors voted unanimously to forgo cuts for now while staff explores the potential for additional revenue sources.

ST. PETERSBURG — The vote was unanimous. All 13 members of the PSTA Board of Directors said yes April 24 to a plan to avoid service reductions that had been scheduled to begin in June.

Board members had two choices: Approve the service reductions as proposed by staff to begin in June or secure $5 million in new annual operating funds by July to avoid service reductions in October.

While no one knows where the additional money will come from, all are optimistic that a solution will be found. PSTA will use reserves to balance the budget for now.

Potential funding sources include an increase in the local option gas tax, a referendum for cities that are not now paying ad valorem taxes to PSTA or the county’s General Fund. A longer-term solution might be a referendum asking all county residents to pay more.

PSTA Chair Janet Long, who also serves on the Pinellas County Commission, said an unprecedented number of comments had come in from the public in opposition to cutting service. As of the April 24 public hearing, 309 comments had been received. All opposed the cuts.

Staff had proposed eliminating routes 22 and 58, as well as the Safety Harbor Connector, Dunedin/Palm Harbor Connector and the East Lake Shuttle. Portions of route 16 and route 5 would have been eliminated and DART service would have been axed in the same areas.

DART service provides Demand Response Transportation for people who are unable to use PSTA buses due to a disability.

Nineteen people spoke to the board before the vote. They talked about the reasons they need the service, which included getting to work, to school, to medical appointments and to go shopping. They expressed the hardship it would impose on them if the board approved the proposed cuts. For some, it meant longer trips. Others would have to walk farther to catch a bus. Some wouldn’t be able to make it to work, school or to medical appointments due to bus schedules. They don’t have the money to use ride sharing or taxi services.

Six businesses also opposed the cuts, including ConMed, Pinellas Care Systems, Sea Breeze Adult Day Care Center, Palladium Theater (St. Petersburg College), Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas and JRB Solutions. The Pinellas Council of the Blind opposed cutting DART services.

Board member Richard Bennett, commissioner for Redington Beach, asked what would happen if the money wasn’t found by July or if only some of the money was available.

“Will we do this all over again,” he said.

“We’ll do whatever we can within our county to not cut service as it is today,” Long said.

She said PSTA CEO Brad Miller, County Administrator Barry Burton and Forward Pinellas Executive Director were working together on a “big bold plan” to address transportation needs. The county commission is expected to hold a work session in May or June to discuss how to preserve services and make future improvements as well as explore potential funding sources.

Long pointed out that lack of funding is the big problem. PSTA’s budget is $80 million. Comparable systems have budgets of $220 million, she said, adding that PSTA was “terribly, terribly underfunded.”

She said some believe that transportation systems should be self-sustaining. However, that’s not realistic, she said.

“Transportation will always be subsidized. It isn’t free,” she said. “Everyone should be participating and raising the quality of life in this county.”

Board member Pat Gerard, who also is a county commissioner, thanked the public who took time to attend the public hearings. She said she was “very confident” that a solution would be found to prevent the need for cuts and make improvements.

She asked the public to help by talking to neighbors and family members about the need for bus services.

Board member Darden Rice, councilmember for the city of St. Petersburg, also thanked the people who attended and shared their stories. She believes PSTA provides a necessary community service.

“That’s the core of what we do,” she said.

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