If we needed another example of the damage being inflicted on public services by the property tax cuts required by Amendment 1, here's a good one: Bus routes are being cut and bus fares are going up just when more people want to ride the bus.
The bus systems aren't responsible for this predicament. Lower taxes were mandated by Florida voters, who apparently thought that government agencies could easily maintain existing service levels for public services such as libraries, recreation programs and bus systems. It wasn't true then, and it especially is not true now, with falling property values also taking a bite out of government revenues.
Both the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) in Pinellas County and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) in Hillsborough County are trimming routes and raising fares. Property taxes, not fare box proceeds, pay almost 70 percent of the cost of operating the two transit systems. HART lost $2.8-million in property tax revenue during the 2008 fiscal year and has cut another $300,000 from its 2009 projected revenues. PSTA is projecting revenue drops of $2-million a year for the foreseeable future.
At the same time property tax revenues have been evaporating, the transit systems have been slammed by higher fuel costs — the very costs driving more residents to consider parking their cars and riding the bus. In Pinellas, ridership rose almost 10 percent in the last year. HART ridership is up about 7 percent.
So just when interest in riding the bus is rising, the money to provide broader access to the service isn't there. Mass transit is good for household budgets, good for traffic flow and good for the environment. If bus routes and schedules were more convenient, ridership would rise even more. The situation highlights the need for new revenue sources for mass transit in the Tampa Bay area — and the disconnect between popular tax cuts and popular public services.