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PSTA re-structuring hits a bump in the road

David Krakow

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Photo: Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

St. Petersburg city officials and civilian transit advocates worry that a bill passed by Pinellas County’s state lawmaking delegation to re-structure the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority will dilute the city’s voice in future board decision making.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Linda Chaney (R-St. Pete Beach), passed 6-3, along party lines, and will now move to the Florida Legislature. A city official said there was no way to know for sure but that a vote could come in the spring.

Notable in the bill is a reduction of the size of the PSTA board from 15 members to 11. One of two board seats held by officials of St. Petersburg City Council would be eliminated. Currently, councilmembers Gina Driscoll and Deborah Figgs-Sanders serve. There would also be the elimination of one St. Pete citizen seat appointed by Council currently held by Joshua Shulman).

When originally announcing the bill, Chaney had stated that reducing the board will “make them more engaged, more accountable to their members.” The vote was called during a Nov. 29 meeting at St. Pete College’s Seminole campus.

Not everyone agreed with Chaney’s assessment.

“The board vote,” Shulman told the Catalyst, “was not driving at a solution to identified problems.” He suggested that adequate discussion of the issues was lacking and that a third-party study should have been commissioned to offer recommendations. “It is a partisan power grab,” he continued. “It shifts power to commissioners who don’t benefit as much (as St. Petersburg) from PSTA.”

Stephanie Weaver, communication manager for PSTA, shared statistics showing that for fiscal year 2023, which ended Sept. 30, total ridership was 10.4 million, 1.7 million more than FY22. Ridership dropped almost two million from FY2019 to FY2020 then took another dip from FY21 to FY22 after a small one-year rise.

Driscoll had harsher words about the aims of the bill. “This bill is not only an attack on PSTA,” she said, “but also an attack on our residents and an attack on our cities.” Driscoll stated that she had recently moved to Coquina Key after 17 years living downtown and saw firsthand, from the St. Petersburg Downtown Looper to the SunRunner, how the PSTA’s network helps not only those who need transit to get around but those who don’t.

Driscoll also cited the recent designation by the American Public Transportation Association of the PSTA as America’s best transit agency.

Shulman’s term runs through Sept. 30, 2024 but the board re-structuring, should it pass the Legislature, would take effect July 1. Shulman believes the board might change the date to Oct. 1 to align with its fiscal year, meaning he would be able to fulfill his term. Driscoll said her term runs into 2026; Figgs-Sanders’ term expires the following year.

Shulman also questioned the logic of the board makeup, considering the population of the county and city. Why, he asked, does St. Petersburg, with a population of 236,000, retain only one seat while the county will hold four, including for the 280,000 that live in unincorporated sections of the county. The population of the county is around 950,000.

If the recommended changes become law, the transit board’s 11 members would break down as: Four from the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners; one from St. Pete City Council; one from Clearwater City Council; three that will rotate among 22 municipalities, in descending population order, and two chosen from a rotation of 13 municipalities chosen by the Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Driscoll feels that the bill will be a tough sell to the entire Legislature. “A local bill is quite controversial,” she stated. “I’m confident that reasonable minds would prevail.” She noted that she’s comforted that State Senator Ed Hooper (R-Clearwater), while voting for the bill, still asked if this matter was better left to local officials.

Asked if she felt urgency to work faster to achieve her goals in case the city’s contingent is reduced, Driscoll said “My plan is to stay the course. I don’t plan on seeing a reduction. My hope is that the dangers of this bill will be more apparent as it moves forward.”

Correction: the original version of this story stated that Pinellas County’s population other than St. Petersburg is 280,000. This has been corrected to reflect that the 280,000 is the population of unincorporated sections of the county.

 

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mike C

    December 3, 2023at4:48 pm

    “America’s best transit agency” -absolutely hilarious! What are the metrics? The system is mismanaged, and wasteful of tax payer dollars and counterproductive to easing congested roads. Leadership, keep telling yourself that this is great stuff, super successful, yet everyone else sees empty buses driving on empty bus lanes. Case study for business school in government waste.

  2. Avatar

    Donna Kostreva

    December 3, 2023at12:08 pm

    While you are investigating this fiasco, find out who does all the concrete work!
    The driving public wants to gets from A to B as quickly as possible, yet a main East /West artery is consumed by nonexistent passengers on empty buses. This project was in response to Federal Grant monies offered. The statistics about ridership about are based on the FREE ridership like a loss leader. We need micro buses with call ahead service door to door for residents which would be more precise and cost effective. The residents are tired of wasteful, disruptive, ineffectual nonsense.

  3. Avatar

    Dorine

    December 2, 2023at7:40 pm

    Even though in 2014 Pinellas County voters rejected the Greenlight Pinellas light rail plan, PSTA CEO Brad Miller has been pushing that exact plan with SunRunner. This unwanted and unneeded bus rapid transit project implements the downsides of light rail by removing lanes of traffic from drivers and residential parking spaces from homeowners. Additionally the raised boarding platforms are only necessary if one takes into account that PSTA executive Abishek Dayal said he is hoping the BRT project spawns extensions of BRT to include light rail. He added, “We’ll see if light rail is still a dirty word after the BRT project.” So it appears that SunRunner is a deliberate misrepresentation and power grab by PSTA and St. Pete city council to implement what voters rejected!

  4. Avatar

    John Donovan

    December 2, 2023at5:54 pm

    My understanding is PSTA was considering claiming several new traffic lanes from existing major Pinellas County roads. Similar to SunRunner perhaps. St Pete Catalyst might like to dig deeper and inform their readers.

  5. Avatar

    Dave Stehekin

    December 1, 2023at7:46 pm

    Couldn’t be retaliation for the St Petersburg to St Pete Beach public transportation discounted fares for low income service industry passengers waiting for their bus in St Pete Beach could it?

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