As the price of gasoline continues to spiral, finding an empty seat on area buses becomes more of a challenge.
But even with the increase in passenger counts, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority faces the prospect of reducing service because of the financial squeeze resulting from lower property tax revenues.
The PSTA reported a surge in ridership last month. More than
1-million passengers boarded PSTA buses in February, a 15 percent increase over 2007, and overall ridership has increased 9 percent since October, according to PSTA figures.
Executive director Tim Garling credits skyrocketing gas prices with motivating people to take the bus.
"It's a logical assumption," he said. "When you consider the cost of filling up the gas tank, mass transit is a very good value."
The average price of a gallon of unleaded gasoline hit an all-time high of $3.267 on March 19, according to the AAA Web site.
Randy Bly, director of community relations for AAA Auto Club South, said he thinks the high fuel prices are affecting traveler behavior.
"People are doing all they can to conserve, including utilizing public transit," he said.
Mass transit ridership increased nationwide in the past year. The American Public Transportation Association reports that Americans took 10.3-billion trips on public transportation in 2007, the highest level in 50 years.
But even as bus ridership increases, the PSTA plans to reduce service in the near future.
Garling said the decreases in service are part of the overall plan to cut the organization's $56-million budget by about $3-million.
The cost cutting stems from a decrease in Pinellas County property tax revenue in the wake of the passage of Amendment 1 and increasing operating costs.
Bob Lasher, PSTA community relations manager, said the impact of rising fuel prices will hit particularly hard next year because the agency purchases fuel at a relatively low negotiated rate, which will have to be renegotiated before next year.
"Even though the cuts themselves are fairly small, we know it is going to have a much greater impact because of fuel prices and inflation," he said.
The PSTA derives about two-thirds of its budget from property tax receipts. About 18 percent comes from passenger fares. Garling said these figures compare with other transit authorities across the nation.
Garling said the PSTA will reduce service between 5 and 10 percent, but in a way that affects the fewest passengers. He said the organization is analyzing routes to make cuts in underused areas, and everyone from executives to drivers are involved in the process. In some cases, entire routes may be eliminated. Others will only experience a decrease in frequency. Many will remain unaffected.
"We will look at every route at every hour to make sure there is a minimal impact on riders. We're going to minimize service reductions as much as we can," he said. "We don't want to leave anybody behind. Ultimately we want ridership, and we are not willing to concede ridership in this process."
Despite budget cutting, Garling remains optimistic, calling the current revenue crunch "a bump in the road." He said the PSTA continues to explore alternative revenue sources and that, he thinks, in the long run, the system will grow.
"The long-term dynamic is an increased demand for mass transit in this community," he said.
Michael Maharrey can be reached at (727) 893-8779 or [email protected]