Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) officials have recommended eliminating and reducing routes to balance their budget, even as some residents and local leaders clamor for increased transportation options.
The agency’s governing board heard plans to eliminate the six least-traveled routes Wednesday morning, including three in St. Petersburg. The proposal would also reduce the 52LX (49th Street), Route 59 (Ulmerton Road) and the Central Avenue Trolley services.
In addition, PSTA would end all routes at 10 p.m. instead of midnight and transfer a third of its station trash collection efforts to municipalities. Collectively, the organization would serve 310,000 fewer passengers but save $3.1 million annually.
“Which is actually more than we need to cut if we wanted to maintain the current millage rate of .75,” said Heather Sobush, chief planning and sustainability officer. “We don’t believe we need to implement the entire list, but we do want to bring the full list of options to the public …”
After an extensive debate, the board voted 12-1 to advance the proposal to a public hearing phase. It also voted 11-2 in favor of the recommended .75 property tax millage rate – the maximum allowed by state statute.
That is also subject to public hearings and could change. A full rollback to .6764 would require PSTA to cut 23 routes, including the Jolley Trolley Coastal and the Looper.
That would affect 1.9 million riders and require 50 fewer vehicles. The agency would also lay off 100 employees.
“Nobody likes laying off employees, but this is not a jobs program,” said County Commissioner Brian Scott. “This is a transit agency.”
Sobush said the goal at the .75 rate is eliminating $1.5 million from PSTA’s annual budget. Deborah Leous, chief financial officer, explained that the agency started with a $120 million budget and decreased it by $7 million by implementing “some reductions.”
PSTA has $2.4 million in unrestricted reserves. Leous called using those savings to balance the upcoming budget a “band-aid” solution and identified ways to increase coffers without making personnel changes.
The agency found that eliminating and reducing the lowest-performing routes and “some other ideas” resulted in a balanced budget. Leous also noted PSTA continues receiving requests for additional services.
Those include another SunRunner line, increased frequency on “core” routes, ferry services, South St. Petersburg shuttle services and for the agency to pick up more of its station trash. Shifting a third of that responsibility to municipal haulers would save PSTA about $170,000 annually.
Several board members said low ridership does not correlate with community importance. While route 813 in Dunedin serves just 700 monthly passengers, City Commissioner Jeff Gow noted it supports a low-income senior community.
He said public transit is a need rather than a want for those elderly residents. Gow added that many riders along the jeopardized routes depend on the service, and the surrounding community also benefits from reduced congestion and economic impacts.
A full millage rate rollback would save the average homeowner $14.48 annually. Gow noted that property insurance rates are soaring and compared PSTA’s reduction to “giving somebody who is dehydrated … a spoonful of water.”
“Just so we can feel better about ourselves and say, ‘We did what we could for you,’” he said. “If PSTA needs my $14, please take it. But do not feel that by giving that money back to our residents, you are helping them …”
PSTA officials rarely mentioned the region’s first bus-rapid-transit service. However, the SunRunner was the source of several impassioned public comments at the meeting’s onset.
Multiple St. Pete Beach residents bemoaned the free service for bringing crime, drugs and homeless people from St. Petersburg to their community. One speaker, Jill, said she is “scared to death because I’m afraid somebody’s going to throw a Molotov cocktail through my window.”
Many said PSTA should charge for the service to mitigate the unwanted visitors and increase funding. The agency will begin charging its typical $2.25 fare for the SunRunner Nov. 1, and officials expect $200,000 in annual revenues.
Joshua Shulman, chair of PSTA’s planning committee, pushed back against misconceptions concerning taxes subsidizing transit – like the SunRunner. He called the 3% cap on homesteaded properties a subsidy.
Shulman said renters help pay property taxes as part of monthly payments. Another public speaker noted that the government subsidizes roads and parking spaces for drivers.
“I want to be very careful when we start pointing fingers at who is getting a subsidy and who is not getting a subsidy,” Shulman said. “We’re all getting a subsidy – we’re just getting them in different ways.”
PSTA officials will now set public hearings regarding potential route eliminations and reductions. They will also transmit the proposed .75 millage rate to the property appraiser.
Here are the routes recommended for elimination or changes, according to that rate:
- Route 813 – Dunedin: Countryside Mall to Dunedin to Alderman Road (700 monthly rides)
- Route 814 – Safety Harbor: Countryside Mall to downtown Safety Harbor (900 monthly rides)
- Route 90 – St. Pete/St. Pete Beach: Commuter service between South St. Pete and St. Pete Beach (1,900 monthly rides)
- Route 32 – Downtown St. Petersburg: Serving John Knox Housing (2,000 monthly rides)
- Route 22 – St. Petersburg: 22nd Avenue N. in St. Petersburg from 4th Street to 72nd Street (2,600 monthly rides)
- Route 5 – St. Petersburg: 5th Avenue N. in St. Petersburg from Grand Central to Tyrone Square Mall (2,700 monthly rides)
- Route 58 – Bryan Dairy/Seminole: Serving Carillon to 113th Street to the St. Petersburg College Seminole Campus (2,900 monthly rides)
- Reduce some trips on limited-stop 52LX (2,000 monthly rides)
- Restrict Central Avenue Trolley to only operate between the St. Pete Pier and Grand Central Station (4,000 monthly rides)
- Restrict PSTA Access Mobility on Demand (5,000 annual ride reduction)