ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Board of Directors unanimously passed the fiscal year 2022 millage rate and budget at the final public hearing on Sept. 29.

The millage rate will remain at 0.7500 mils, the maximum allowed by state law. It is a 6.46% increase over the rollback rate, which is the amount needed to collect the same amount of money as last year.

Directors also said yes to operating costs of $97.5 million and $84 million in capital expenses for a total budget of $182 million. The budget is balanced through FY 2025.

Debbie Leous, chief financial officer, thanked everyone who helped put the budget together. She said it helped to have a good sustainability plan that could easily transition into an action plan.

In other business, Leous and Henry Lukaski, director of maintenance, presented the five-year bus replacement plan.

Lukaski said thanks to support from the late Congressman Bill Young, PSTA received funding to purchase 60 buses during the years 2005 and 2006. The orders placed during those years were the largest in PSTA’s history.

However, those buses are now 15-16 years old and have an average mileage ranging from 803,047 to 880,485. The goal is to replace those old diesel buses with 60 new buses over the next five years.

Lukaski said the ultimate goal would be to replace them all with zero-emission electric buses.

Leous said PSTA had $46 million available now to buy new electric buses, but it needs as additional $75.5 to purchase all 60 — a gap of more than $29 million. The estimated cost also includes chargers.

Leous is determined to find the extra money via discretionary grants, money from the infrastructure bill currently being worked on in congress, a partnership with Duke Energy or other federal grants as they become available.

She said the plan would be to replace the buses over time so in the future PSTA would not find itself in need to replace 60 at once.

Director Janet Long, who also is a Pinellas County commissioner, advised that PSTA get in its “ask” for money as soon as possible and accelerate the goal to replace 60 buses over two years’ time instead of five.

Directors also gave unanimous approval to the consent agenda, which included an agreement with the city of Clearwater for the Autonomous Vehicle Advantage demonstration. It is a continuation of the AVA program first implemented in downtown St. Petersburg before moving to Dunedin.

The program in Clearwater will operate along Gulfview Boulevard and is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2021 and continue for about three months. After that, AVA may move back to Dunedin or St. Petersburg.

A new agreement with St. Petersburg’s Downtown Looper (circulator) was approved as part of the consent agenda. It is a three-year agreement from FY 2022-2024 between PSTA, the city of St. Petersburg and the St. Pete Downtown Partnership to fund operations at a cost not to exceed $734,316.

Other items approved as part of the consent agenda included software maintenance agreements, Largo bus stop easement agreement and a resolution for a potential solar energy grant.

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