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Pinellas deserves a fiscally responsible, accountable transit system

Brian Scott

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A PSTA electric bus. Photo by Veronica Brezina.

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During my first tenure as a citizen volunteer to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board (PSTA), 2012-2018, my goals were simple: For PSTA to carry the maximum number of passengers and provide the best service possible, and to accomplish the first goal in the most efficient way possible.

I learned very quickly that my goals and PSTA’s goals were severely misaligned. PSTA’s goals were, and are to this day, to remain relevant to local, state, and federal leaders that make their funding decisions by focusing on the next capital project. Carrying passengers at PSTA is merely a suggestion, because if not a single passenger is carried, the money still shows up. There is no incentive for efficiency or accountability at PSTA to the taxpayers. To add emphasis; when I left the board in 2018, PSTA had 200 buses and 608 employees. Today, PSTA has 213 buses, and 671 employees. In the 4 ½ years since, ridership has continued to suffer and two of those years was during a pandemic, yet PSTA still managed to increase its footprint and budget.

As evidenced by the steadily declining ridership since 2012, and increases in public subsidy from local, state, and federal taxpayers, PSTA clearly does not measure success in passenger trips, costs per mile, fare box recovery, or any other cost to benefit ratio. Year after year, PSTA continues to do “less with more” and define success in terms of favorable media coverage for new projects and cherry-picked performance metrics, ribbon cuttings, grants won, industry and internal accolades for feel good measures such as equity, diversity and inclusion, net promotor scores, leadership programs and climate change initiatives.

PSTA spends federal, state and local funds lavishly on the latest fad of electric buses and charging equipment, with much of the raw materials being sourced from China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where massive strip mining operations, combined with poor human rights and labor conditions, source the elements needed along with using coal fired power plants to manufacture the difficult and expensive to recycle toxic batteries, all while our country is over $31 trillion in debt.

PSTA, along with virtually all transit properties across the country, was already experiencing record low pre-pandemic ridership. Post-pandemic, travel and work patterns for all Americans have changed dramatically, with many choosing to work remotely, leaving traditional office settings vacant in many urbanized areas. Furthermore, it is unlikely ridership will return to anywhere near the already abysmal pre-pandemic levels, even with efforts to diminish competition from other modes by reducing traffic capacity with dedicated bus lanes.

In the three-year period from 2019 to 2021, assuming 100% of all PSTA riders were residents and not tourists, on average, 15,818 people, or roughly 1.65% of Pinellas residents were daily riders of either bus or demand response service, and we accomplished all this with a fully allocated budget over that same period of $314,230,380.

What is wrong with this picture? We can and must do better than that. I am sure Uber and Lyft provide far more passenger trips on any given day or month than PSTA does, and at a much lower cost.

We are at a crossroads that requires a complete re-evaluation of our purpose, methods and cost effectiveness. We have an obligation to provide transit services to the public, however, we have an equal responsibility to provide services they want and need in a fiscally responsible manner and understand transit is an inferior product, meaning as the economy improves, ridership drops.

Public transit in today’s massively subsidized format is not designed to be profitable, but it must be run like a business. For PSTA to regain a semblance of accountability and credibility with the residents of Pinellas, we must engage the community and find out what they want by re-evaluating the upcoming community bus study, its purpose, methods and intended outcomes, to audit PSTA’s staffing plan and vendors to remove duplicative positions and services, provide greater board oversight on route performance including evaluating less expensive, more effective transportation alternatives to traditional fixed route bus transit, and initiate a competitive procurement to see what cost savings and innovation can be brought to the table from the private sector.

Brian Scott was elected to the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners in 2022.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Bob Lasher

    May 8, 2023at9:07 am

    What a shame that Mr Scott’s ridership assumptions are not based on fact. Isn’t that the least we should expect from our leaders?
    The majority of PSTA riders are NOT commuters, so assuming that the daily ridership applies to the same people every day couldn’t be more off base. In late 2011 PSTA conducted a statistically valid phone survey of PSTA residents, done by Fallon Research & Communications. In that survey was the question, “Over the past 5 years, have you ridden on local public transit in Pinellas County, such as buses or trolleys?” 29.2% of respondents said, “Yes.”(+/- 4.38%)
    Compared to similarly populated areas around the county, PSTA is one of the smallest transit agencies in the nation for its service area population. This means that PSTA has a high rate of transit dependent riders, which is not surprising since the majority of its routes run once an hour. Hourly service makes it difficult to attract riders who have other options. This is also why, compared to other transit agencies across the country, PSTA’s ridership did not drop nearly as much as others during the pandemic.
    Perhaps Mr. Scott should keep this in mind next time he wants to complain about being “dismissed” by the board as a whole.

  2. Avatar

    Karen Foley

    April 22, 2023at8:02 am

    I am 64. As a kid, growing up in St.Pete, I used the bus system to get to swim lessons at the YMCA, and then later to get to Seminole to see friends. My mother used the system to get to Webb’s City for work; my grandmother used it to get to friends’ homes.
    There was no waiting around for hours for a bus, they came every quarter hour. Transfers were a punch card, and easy to use.
    I have met sooo many people that come from northern cities that are shocked and disappointed that our system is so poor. Once here they find they can’t take certain jobs because it would mean hours in travel time to and from the job. As crowded and dangerous as US 19 is, you’d think more busses, at more intervals would be welcome to even those that don’t use the transit system.

  3. Avatar

    Virginia McCann

    April 21, 2023at10:03 am

    Hello, I have been a PSTA Bus Rider/Patron since 2001. I am VERY thankful for the dedication that PSTA has provided for me as a public & essential need for me.

    I too, use the PSTA/Uber service to go to work, ( just 5 minutes away from my home/apartment. )

    I work from 9pm-7am, on the weekend-nights.
    I work 11pm-4am on week-nights.
    There are no busses that run after 10pm-11pm.
    I take Uber, when & if I have missed the bus.
    I balance my time, to be at the bus-stop at least 15 minutes before arriving.
    I have the PSTA Transit App.
    ( which helps me tremendously. )
    I hate being late for work.

    When I get ready to leave work around 7:30-8am, I am exhausted…And the quickest way to get home and rest IS Uber.

    * For me…Efficiency is the issue, it’s not a problem that can’t..it can!

    *Many people do not know, HOW To Pace Their Own Schedules. To coincide With Their Scheduled Lives, and Bus Schedules.

    * I’ve heard so many times..people will cuss out the bus driver for being late.

    *It’s NOT THE DRIVER’S FAULT, that they are late for work or an appointment!

    * Understanding The Responsibility Of The RIDER/PATRON, to be on time, before the bus artives or not.

    * Giving themselves ample time..minutes..hours to Prepare Themselves Before Their Bus Arrives to transport them to their Appointment, Or Daily Schedules.

    * Having their fare/cards READY BEFORE
    boarding the ALL busses.
    * Patron & Bus Driver Conflicts ARE A LARGE ISSUE, Within Itself.

    I have witnessed all of these issues for the last 22 years.
    New Riders will fall out with trust for their own safety with all of these issues.

    Thank You,PSTA 👍
    Virginia McCann

  4. Avatar

    Karen Kirkpatrick

    April 20, 2023at3:32 pm

    Kudos to Scott! But nothing will change with PSTA until you get rid of Brad Miller, CEO. I have been speaking up for years. Now I just take a Lyft or Uber like most others who don’t drive. The Sunrunner only cost 47 million dollars to run half empty most times. Hey, but aren’t the Sunrunner bus shelters snazzy when the rest of county is lucky to have any bus shelter at all?

  5. Avatar

    Donna Kostreva

    April 19, 2023at10:24 pm

    This piece by Brian Scott is spot on, a breath of fresh air!
    I just read a full article on a young speculator from Miami who bought acreage along 22nd St. S. and asked city council for a $38,000 study to see if the Sunrunner can be expanded to service the land he has purchased under the guise of,” if you build it they will
    Come.”
    Mr. Scott’s experiences make everything clear as to why the council wants to waste more taxpayer money on a money losing operation. Like Paul Harvey said,”Now you know the rest of the story. “.

  6. Avatar

    Melmcclell

    April 19, 2023at9:09 pm

    Finally, common sense and The TRUTH was spoken ‘out loud’ – And, that is exactly what I said previously (in another post), Mike. I don’t understand all of this “We Must Do Better,” & “Get More People To Ride,” “Don’t Decrease Funding,” etc…. I mean, WHY!? Why are you just soooo ‘looked-in’ to some (ANY) kind propaganda/ideology/etc. I don’t get it!? It. Doesn’t. Work. PERIOD. Everyone ‘says’ they want it, but then, NO BODY will ever actually, use-it. Times are changing (tho no one used it in the past)… I was just thinking yesterday, that I bet “Uber/Lyft” would be cheaper and we all already KNOW that it is waaaayyy more efficient – And, people would prefer it/like-it A LOT better… I don’t know ‘who’ or ‘where’ it’s coming from but ‘someone’ is ALREADY, ‘subsidizing/paying for’ Lyft-rides to back and forth to and from (work and doctor’s appointments) for a very large number of citizens (mostly ‘seniors’) in this county – realizing this is what got me thinking about the whole Uber/Lyft thing… It would HAVE TO BE soooo much cheaper and would save the federal and local governments (aka TAXPAYERS) billions (in wasteful spending) nationwide. Over 10yrs… Probably, TRILLIONS.

  7. Avatar

    Shirley Hayes

    April 19, 2023at7:23 pm

    This writer read my mind. I have to walk to 54th Avenue South and 31st Street to catch a bus, then to Central Plaza if I wish to go to the Mall. I am retired. I would ride the Bus instead of driving many times. Traffic on 66th Street is miserable. If you live South of 22nd Avenue the nearest bus is 54th Avenue South, 32 blocks 2+miles.Then if it rains you have to walk in the rain, then wait in an uncovered bus shelter, oh well…

  8. Avatar

    David S Goodwin

    April 19, 2023at3:42 pm

    The author offers nothing positive, constructive or helpful and he has no vision of what transit can be in Pinellas County. Better transit will require more money and a long term commitment to the right investments. Trashing the SunRunner is myopic at best and certainly ignorant of what it will take in this County to make transit work. This gentleman will do no service to transit in Pinellas County. Why the Catalyst would print his words is hard to understand.

  9. Avatar

    Steve D.

    April 19, 2023at3:24 pm

    If the goal of public transportation is to get as many people to use it regularly as possible, the SunRunner is it. It’s frequent; it’s fast; it’s fairly comfortable, except when it’s often SRO; and it’s made it impossible for many to justify driving to the beach or downtown St. Pete. Fare collection would slow it down tremendously and might cost more than fares collected. It’s a public service like public parks, senior centers, etc. None of those are profitable either.

  10. Avatar

    Kari

    April 19, 2023at1:04 pm

    Let’s do better and get more people to ride PTSA, let’s do better and get more citizens involved in the board meetings. Please don’t decrease transit funding.

  11. Avatar

    Mike

    April 19, 2023at11:51 am

    Congratulations to the catalyst for publishing something sane.

    Is there going to be a follow up contrasting the catalysts coverage of the fully subsidized sunrunner? Of which a negative word has ever been published? Or does the catalyst take zero responsibility for it’s content??

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