EAST LAKE — A new type of bus service is rumbling toward northern Pinellas County.
In a few months, a fleet of small, 10-seat minibuses will begin circulating through East Lake, Oldsmar and Palm Harbor, picking up passengers at their doorsteps. Riders will be able to call ahead for reservations.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is creating these "flex" routes partly because smaller buses will be better at maneuvering into the area's gated communities and cul-de-sac neighborhoods.
"It's not transit-friendly up there," said PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher. "Standard buses are just too long to get into some of those communities."
PSTA's board voted this week to buy five minibuses for $570,000, bringing the total to eight; they had already purchased three minibuses in December.
Officials hope to have the new flex routes running by mid year. They don't have exact routes or schedules yet. Instead, they're planning a public outreach campaign in the coming months to learn more about what bus riders in the area want.
"Where do people want to go? What day of the workweek? What time of day?" Lasher said. "We don't have a lot of money to work with, so we want to make sure that what we put out there will really nail it in terms of customer service."
Even the bus fare for the flex routes hasn't been settled yet.
Hillsborough County's bus system has similar flex routes in several suburbs. One-way fares on those routes are only 85 cents, and an all-day pass is $1.85. Meanwhile, a regular one-way bus fare in Hillsborough is $1.75. In Pinellas County it's $2.
So, how will this actually work?
The 10-seater buses will run along "flex routes," roughly following main thoroughfares. They may veer a mile or so off their routes to take passengers to jobs, offices, stores or appointments.
"Right now we're looking at three-quarters of a mile to a mile from the standard route," Lasher said. Riders will call ahead for reservations or wait for the vehicles at stops.
PSTA's board has voted to spend $700,000 a year on the flex service.
This year, the Florida Department of Transportation is chipping in a $211,000 grant to help pay for it.
Officials hope that at least one of North Pinellas' flex routes will connect riders to Hillsborough's bus system by taking them to Hillsborough's Northwest Transfer Center at Waters Avenue and Sheldon Road.
First, though, there will a public relations campaign to figure out what riders want.
"We're gearing up for a big push," Lasher said. "We're going to do outreach with chambers, homeowners associations, St. Pete College and religious organizations."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Write letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.