Financial maneuvering enabled the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) to avoid sending three St. Petersburg bus routes serving a high school, college and low-income neighborhoods to the junkyard.
PSTA’s board voted 10-4 to maintain the current .75 millage rate at its Sept. 27 meeting. PSTA board member Vince Cocks and County Commissioners Kathleen Peters, Chris Latvala and Brian Scott dissented.
Debbie Leous, chief financial officer for PSTA, began her presentation by noting she has worked in public transit for 34 years. “This is the first time I have ever seen where we’ve been able to retain expenditures within 1.1% year-over-year,” she added.
“We went to each and every one of our divisions, and we worked to reduce costs across all functions,” Leous said. “The good news is, we were able to balance this budget you (the board) are going to vote on.”
The agency’s board discussed eliminating the six least-traveled routes in July, including three in St. Petersburg. At the time, Leous explained that PSTA began the process with a $120 million budget before she found ways to decrease it by $7 million.
A full millage rollback to .6764 per $1,000 of taxable property value was also on the table. That would have saved the average homeowner $14.48 annually.
However, the rollback would have required PSTA to cut 23 routes, including the Jolley Trolley Coastal and the Looper. The board voted 11-2 in favor of the recommended .75 millage rate in July, eliminating $1.5 million from PSTA’s budget and saving 100 jobs.
Agency officials discovered additional ways to cut costs in the two months since that meeting. They decided to preserve three routes with the $500,000 in savings.
- Route 58 (St. Pete College Seminole Campus/Bryan Dairy Road – 2,900 monthly riders) will continue traveling east to Gateway Mall but no longer proceed to the Carillon business district. However, Route 52 will continue serving that area.
- Route 5 (5th Street/St. Pete College Gibbs Campus – 2,700 monthly riders) will continue with no changes.
- Route 32 (St. Petersburg circulator – 2,000 monthly riders) will continue serving Arlington Arbor and other low-income housing areas on the west side of downtown St. Pete.
“We have met a lot of challenges … and a lot of it was out of our control,” explained Leous at the Sept. 27 meeting. “We had to deal with a very high inflationary environment, about 10% locally. The insurance market has been extremely difficult – as each one of us, personally and professionally – knows.”
Leous said incorporating public feedback is now perfunctory for the organization. Many residents spoke against eliminating any routes during the budgeting process and at the meeting, with one calling transportation a human right.
Leous said PSTA officials realized they could eliminate $100,000 in garbage collection costs by removing trash cans from low-ridership bus stops. Projected contractor payments to companies like Uber and Lyft for Mobility on Demand services “were lower than expected” and saved the agency $247,000.
Fuel expenses were also $150,000 under budget. Leous said PSTA “locked in” an average price of $2.48 per gallon, “which is pretty healthy.”
Board members approved a $114.51 million operating budget and a $73.53 million capital expense budget. That preserves 95% of all bus routes and mobility options for disabled residents.
Many buses will continue running past 10 p.m. – another proposed change – and PSTA will continue fare-free rides on some holidays. However, the agency did cut its lowest-performing routes.
Route 813 (700 monthly riders) will no longer travel between Countryside Mall, Dunedin and Alderman Road. Route 814 (900 monthly riders) will no longer take passengers from Countryside Mall to downtown Safety Harbor.
“We understand the importance of fiscal responsibility, as well as the fact that public transportation is the lifeblood of our community,” said CEO Brad Miller in a prepared statement. “Balancing our budget to maximize the routes we can serve is vital for access to education, employment, healthcare and more.
“We are proud to have found a way to ensure more of these key services continue.”
Additional changes include:
- Route 90 (1,900 monthly riders) will only travel from South St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach.
- The Central Avenue Trolley (4,000 monthly riders) will no longer continue west of the Grand Central Terminal.
- PSTA will eliminate an unspecified number of limited-stop 52 LX (2,000 monthly riders) trips.