In redesigning the bus system, Pinellas County transit officials are hoping to attract thousands more riders, including tourists and commuters. They're also eyeing another target group: high school students.
"All over the world, students ride public transportation to school. Why can't they do it in Florida?" Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala asked recently. "It just makes sense."
Latvala, who sits on the board of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, said that she's been pushing the agency and the county's School Board for years to seriously consider having some students ride city buses to school. It could save the school district money, she said. And some charter schools — including one where she's the board chair — already use the bus network. So why not the county?
For a long time, the answer has been that Pinellas' bus system isn't up to the task. On most of its 43 routes, buses arrive once an hour, a timetable that would not work for a teenager who's sluggish in the morning and misses the bus. Many of the routes also are too long and meandering to be efficient for a trip to school.
But if voters approve a 1-cent sales tax increase in 2014, the bus system could experience a radical overhaul, with wait times cut to half an hour on some routes and 15 minutes on others. In the best-case scenario that consultants presented to a transit committee last month, the county would run buses more frequently and for shorter distances, with more connections.
Putting students on those buses is not a foreign concept to PSTA CEO Brad Miller. Before moving to Florida, he worked in Des Moines, Iowa, where thousands of students ride city buses to school. He's broached the subject with school superintendent Michael Grego, he said, in conversations about finding ways for certain groups of students to take PSTA buses.
Grego did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
In Pinellas, students who live more than 2 miles away from their schools are assigned to a yellow bus route. But others, such as those who attend fundamental schools, don't automatically qualify for bus service and typically rely on their parents to drive them.
"From the discussions we've had, they've been focused just on what new things like the fundamentals could we assist them with," Miller said. "That's the low-hanging fruit."
Putting fundamental school students on public transportation is not going to save the district money. Chipping away at the district's $27 million in annual transportation costs would require studying the entire system of 480 yellow bus routes and assigning large numbers of regular public school students to county buses, a step Minneapolis took last year.
Pinellas School Board member Peggy O'Shea said she doesn't think there is any chance that parents would feel safe letting their children ride PSTA buses to school. The board is not looking into the possibility, she said.
"I believe one of the reasons they want this is they're going to put the penny sales tax on the ballot," she said. "They're probably trying to either increase ridership or get additional funding into the system."
It may take years to sell the School Board on her idea and change the public image of PSTA buses, Latvala said, but in the interim, she would like to see the board get involved in transit discussions.
"We need their support as we move towards the referendum," she said.
This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: A story in Tuesday's paper about the Pinellas bus system hoping to attract student riders incorrectly identified school board member Peggy O'Shea.