Friday, January 19, 2018

PSTA chief rides the bus, gets an earful of feedback

ST. PETERSBURG — On a stifling Friday afternoon, the CEO of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority stood, sweat-drenched, waiting for the bus.

When the Route 52 bus screeched into the station, Brad Miller, 47, squinted in the sunlight. The people around him reached for their bus tickets, while Miller tapped the PSTA app on his phone.

SPECIAL REPORT: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why.

Welcome to day 16 of Miller's monthlong experiment. He had abandoned his car to rely almost exclusively on his agency's own buses.

He wanted to see for himself how the system he runs works on a daily basis.

"People tell me all the time, 'Brad, it's impossible to ride the buses,' " he said, shaking his head. "It's not impossible."

But it's not easy, either. Already, Miller had learned how riders build their days around a transit system full of holes. The routes they rely on don't get them near their destinations. The buses don't come often enough. Too many layovers make them late to work or to pick up their kids.

Every day he sat beside riders who asked him for extended hours, expanded routes and more frequent service. Miller wanted to help them. But the agency's budget can only go so far.

He stepped onto the bus and waved at the driver, then dropped into a seat beside a tired-looking man in an orange button-down.

"Hi, I'm Brad," he said brightly. The passenger looked confused.

"I'm the CEO of PSTA," Miller added. "Where are you headed?"

The passenger looked at him skeptically.

"I've got a long way to go," Miller said with a sigh.

A Tampa Bay Times analysis has found that the region spends significantly less on transit than any other major metro area in the country.

The total operating budget of PSTA and its counterpart, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, is a combined $141 million. That's on par with smaller cities such as Buffalo, N.Y., with populations that are only a fraction of Tampa Bay's 3.2 million residents.

Time after time, officials have proposed solutions, but the region has a long way to go.

Miller came on as CEO in 2010. He started midway through plans for Greenlight Pinellas, a transit referendum that would have brought $130 million to the county's transportation budget. It included plans for expanded bus service and a light rail system.

When it was rejected by voters in 2014, Miller garnered criticism and faced a tough reality: How do you give people more with less?

Miller decided the best thing he could do was listen to the people whose lives hinged on PSTA and fix what little he could, bit by bit. Which is why he was sitting in the back of the 52 bus on June 17, heading toward a town hall meeting at St. Petersburg's Grand Central Station.

The bus was packed. People were crammed in every seat and spilled out into the aisle. It smelled like someone's Thai takeout and everyone's metallic sweat.

Most of the passengers rode silently. Some were buried in their phones. Others squinted out the windows. Some tried, despite the bumps and heat and squeak of the brakes, to sleep.

Miller, though, was here to learn. He changed seats throughout the ride, introducing himself, asking for feedback. Several people ignored him. A couple chuckled. It was awkward.

A few told him about their troubles. He scribbled them down in a red notebook, where he'd taken notes on every ride.

"This 52 doesn't get me to my job, man," a young man in a baseball cap said as he passed Miller on his way off the bus. "I'm late every day because the bus doesn't come early enough."

In the back row, Lurrell Alston gave Miller an earful. He wore a suit and dark sunglasses and spoke so loudly that someone hollered at him to shut up. He was undeterred.

"This man is asking for feedback," he shouted back. "I'm giving him feedback."

Alston told Miller he'd ridden PSTA buses for years. Miller wrote feverishly in his notebook as Alston spat out complaints and suggestions. Some were little things that Miller promised to consider. The buses needed buttons instead of a pull cord to request stops, Alston said. They needed more straps for standing riders.

But they also needed broader, more frequent services, Alston said. He complained that he spent as many hours waiting on the buses as he did riding them.

"You need to add three buses to each route and extend the hours," Alston said.

"I'd love to do that," Miller said. "But we don't have the money."

Alston scoffed.

"You need to do that," he said. "You're the head of the PSTA."

Miller strained to explain himself as Alston stepped out near the Shoppes at Park Place in Pinellas Park.

"Thank you for your comments," Miller said right before the doors slammed shut.

• •

Back at Grand Central, people slumped on benches, complaining about the heat. Cigarette smoke hung heavy in the humid air. A teenage girl smacked gum and shouted into her cellphone.

In the middle of it all, Miller hovered near a card table with some of his employees. They asked the crowd for feedback.

Before his experiment, Miller had ridden the bus four or five times a year. But now, as he recounted experiences from his first two weeks, he could sympathize with the riders' frustrations.

He missed part of his son's baseball game in Seminole because the buses couldn't get him there efficiently. He learned to carry an umbrella — which he snagged from the PSTA lost and found — after he got stuck in a storm walking from the bus stop. He was trapped under the awning at the Starbucks at 900 Fourth St. N, waiting for his wife to take him the rest of the way home. He even started waking up hours earlier to get to work on time.

But for him, it's temporary. Sure, he plans to ride the buses more often, even after the month is up. But most riders don't have the luxury of choosing between a bus and a car. They depend on PSTA and suffer its flaws every day.

At Grand Central Station, right up until Miller had to board the bus for the ride home, he was still leaning in to hear riders' complaints over the din of the crowd, nodding along and furrowing his brow.

Some walked past him without a glance. Others turned away once they realized he wasn't offering free bus passes. Still, Miller waved at everyone and said the same thing:

"Thanks for riding."

Contact Taylor Telford at [email protected] or (513)376-3196. Follow @taylormtelford.

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