ST. PETERSBURG — More people are riding public buses in Pinellas County than ever before, but officials say the boost in fare revenue is not enough to keep the sprawling transit system out of the red in the long run.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority will raise fares and restructure or eliminate 35 of its 43 bus routes this fall as part of its 2009 budget. The regular $1.50 fare will cost 25 cents more, effective Oct. 5. Monthly $45 bus passes will cost $55, a 22 percent increase.
"The alternative was to reduce the service," said board member Jeff Danner, a St. Petersburg City Council member. The increased fares, he added, are "still a bargain."
The public can discuss the changes at a 30-minute budget hearing scheduled for 5 p.m. today at 3201 Scherer Drive in St. Petersburg. The PSTA board will then vote on the proposed $56-million operating budget.
Between the depressed economy and unstable fuel costs, PSTA carried more than 1.1-million riders in July, a 16.9 percent increase over the same period in 2007, according to spokesman Bob Lasher. Since October, PSTA's ridership has grown by more than 10 percent.
"Our ridership is up tremendously, but the fare box doesn't cover much of our operating costs," said board member Herb Polson, a St. Petersburg City Council member.
The PSTA is sitting on a $30-million reserve fund, most of which is earmarked for emergency uses.
But officials say they are struggling to keep up with soaring fuel prices. PSTA purchased fuel for $2.29 a gallon this year. Next year, the agency will pay $3.35 a gallon.
To reduce costs, officials eliminated 26 vacant positions this year.
Passenger fares make up about 23 percent of the transit authority's revenue. The fare increases are projected to bring in an extra $1.9-million in 2009. "I think people understand you have to charge more to bring in more money," said R.B. Johnson, mayor of Indian Rocks Beach and chairman of the PSTA board.