Saturday, April 21, 2018
Transportation

PSTA rethinks bus service in Pinellas amid rising rates, cuts in service

Tourists have to change buses at least once to get to the airport.

Wait times make riding inconvenient.

And on weekends, there are no routes to Hillsborough County.

These are a few of the problems transportation officials are considering as part of a year-long study that could redraw the Pinellas mass transit system. It has been about two decades since the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority took a comprehensive look at its 39 bus routes.

"What we have here in Pinellas County is a very good bus system," PSTA chief executive officer Brad Miller said, "but one that has not changed since there were street cars almost a hundred years ago."

Ridership has climbed for the past two years, but the growth has come in spite of rising rates and reductions in service. The agency is strapped for the cash it needs to add buses and expand routes.

While a core group of commuters rely on PSTA, residents who can travel by car rarely opt for public transportation. To improve its service with both groups, the agency is spending $700,000 to study its bus lines and propose changes to speed up travel times, improve service and lower costs.

The study also will involve surveying riders, as well as business owners and neighborhood associations, to determine where people need the buses to go and if that is out of synch with current routes.

Transportation Management & Design, the firm retained to do the study, is being asked to consider two dramatically different scenarios. In one, Pinellas voters approve a 1-cent countywide sales tax to help pay for light rail or other transit improvements. In the other, residents reject the proposal, leaving the agency with a budget of about $60 million for next year — enough to cover rising gas and health care costs — but too little to pay for expanded service. By 2016, the agency expects to have an $8 million budget gap that would require a 20 percent reduction in services.

The California-based company has conducted similar studies for Des Moines, Iowa, and Orange County, Calif.

Underfunded and yet in-demand, the Pinellas bus system faces a number of obstacles, including:

Transfer costs. Many of the county's bus routes run along a rigid North-South and West-East grid, forcing passengers to transfer frequently. Such transfers are free only for people who buy weekly or daily passes. Other riders pay $2 each time they change buses. Re-thinking the transfer system is a "no-brainer," Miller said. "Almost every major thoroughfare has a bus line on it, but people don't necessarily live their lives and need their transportation in a gridlike way," he said.

• Anemic circulation. Most buses are scheduled to arrive only once an hour. Pinellas residents without cars have learned to live with or work around the infrequent service. Joanna Rengel, who was riding the Central Avenue trolley on Thursday to get from her retirement community to a Church's Chicken, said she spends hours waiting for buses. "I live on the bus," she said. "It's my only means of transportation." But the poor service is a deterrent to people with the means and ability to drive — so-called choice riders.

• Commuter bias. Daytime drivers turned nighttime revelers who might ride buses to avoid drinking and driving are out of luck under the current system. Routes that could appeal to them, such as buses between Tampa and St. Petersburg, are available only on weekdays. Out-of-towners trying to make their way from Pinellas to Tampa International Airport must take a weekday bus from St. Petersburg to Tampa and then transfer to one to the airport.

In fact, most of the current routes are centered on commuters and shoppers. The most popular route takes riders along U.S. 19 from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs. In July, it had 132,526 passengers, a 3 percent increase over the same month in 2011.

Meanwhile, residents of the well-heeled communities of Palm Harbor and East Lake have minimal service, a result of PSTA's shrinking budget and adherence to routes established before housing developments mushroomed in those parts.

Some of the recent boom in ridership has come from people who were forced into mass transit by the recession, but some has come by design. Miller attributes three-quarters of the recent increase to two new bus routes that take people to or along the county's beaches. That could play a key role in determining how the agency will choose to expand.

The route that Rengel rode, which goes between St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach, started in the last year as a trolley service and has grown to more than 76,000 riders through July, up from roughly 23,000 last year. There's also the Jolley Trolley Clearwater line, which has seen its ridership grow by 250,000 people this year, largely because of tourists traveling to the dolphin exhibit at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

"The community still has this hope that we're going to be like a normal Northeastern city with a huge white-collar employment base and commuters," Miller said. "It's just not really that market here."

Increasingly, the market is people like John Myser, a Minnesota delegate who was here for the Republican National Convention. He decided to do a bit of local exploring on Thursday and rode the trolley to Pass-a-Grille beach.

As he disembarked, a would-be conventioneer got on, bound for Williams Park. Larry Brant Sergeant, who goes by the alias Larry Bald Eagle, said he had used his Social Security check to buy a round-trip Greyhound ticket from California to Tampa. It would be his last attempt, at least in this election cycle, to persuade the California delegation to nominate him as the party's candidate for president of the United States.

"I tried to see them at the convention, and they wouldn't let me in," he said, explaining his decision to travel to the delegation's hotel on the beach.

His lodgings were in Tampa, at a shelter run by the Salvation Army, and it took him four bus transfers and half of the money he had left to get back.

Contact Anna Phillips at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.

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