ST. PETERSBURG — Faced with rising fuel costs and a statewide cut in property taxes, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority officials proposed a 25-cent fare increase and a 5 percent reduction in service this week.
But even as the PSTA debated how to cut $6-million from its upcoming annual budget, officials predicted that more commuters than ever will flock to public transit if prices continue to soar at the gas pumps. Ridership is already up by 10 percent so far this year.
The transit authority's money crunch comes in the midst of an ambitious campaign to double ridership and purchase a fleet of updated vehicles over the next decade. PSTA officials said they must either shelve that plan or find an alternative source of funding.
"We are going to have to decide whether this is still a high priority," said R. B. Johnson, chair of the PSTA board of directors and mayor of Indian Rocks Beach.
"The Tampa Bay area has been behind other metropolitan transit systems and we are trying to catch up ... but here we are being confronted by these funding restraints and the rising cost of fuel."
More than half of the transit authority's estimated $6-million loss will come from property tax dollars voided by Amendment 1, which Florida voters approved in January.
At least $2-million will cover an increase in fuel costs, said Bob Lasher, PSTA spokesman.
Fares could rise from $1.50 to $1.75, Lasher said.
At least 22 routes could be modified. In some cases, entire routes may be eliminated. Others will experience a decrease in frequency, Lasher said.
"We want to figure out how we can affect the smallest amount of people," he said.
The PSTA pulled in $37-million in property tax revenue this year, or about two-thirds of its $56-million budget. Passenger fares make up about 18 percent of the transit authority's revenue.
Other cost-saving measures on the table include renting out more advertising space on vehicles to local and national retailers and raising the county's sales tax by half a cent.
"We don't want to go in reverse, and things are not going to be any rosier next year," Johnson said.
"The price of fuel will continue to go up. We are not going to get any additional money as far as the property taxes go. So we have some tough decisions to make."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.