The last time the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority conducted a comprehensive study of ridership and inefficiencies in delivering service, Bill Clinton was running for president, David Fischer was mayor of St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Rays were but a distant dream and Sam Wyche was guiding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 5-11 season. Two decades later, the PSTA is about to commission a long-overdue $700,000 study of its bus lines to rethink its routes, enhance travel times, improve service and examine costs. It's about time, because the lack of a vigorous mass transit system in Tampa Bay is making it hard for the region to reach its economic potential.
Though late in coming, the PSTA study ought to bring the transit agency into the 21st century. But it needn't wait for the final consultant's report to act immediately to address a number of glaring shortcomings. Among the most notable: the onerous $2 additional cost for a transfer, underutilized routes, inefficient hours of service, and the lack of weekend service to Hillsborough County.
The study, to be conducted by Transportation Management & Design, will also gauge voter attitudes toward approving a much-needed 1-cent countywide sales tax to help pay for improving bus service and building a light rail system. Without additional financial support, PSTA, which operates on a $60 million annual budget, could face an $8 million budget shortfall by 2016, leading to reductions in service at a time of record ridership.
As PSTA chief executive officer Brad Miller has noted, the single biggest barrier facing public transportation arises when someone attempts to use a bus or light rail system for the first time and is confronted by a confusing fare structure. The PSTA study will for the first time conduct onboard ridership surveys, as well as seek neighborhood input aimed at answering a fundamental question unasked for two decades: Where are you coming from and where do you want to go?
Even as the PSTA has been forced to reduce service, ridership has steadily increased over the past two years. But ridership service could be smarter and more consumer-friendly. Miller, who has only been on the job for about year, acknowledged that the lack of weekend service from Pinellas County into Hillsborough County and Tampa International Airport is a "missed market." And regular Pinellas users of the bus system need more efficient and reliable hours of service.
As the Tampa Bay area learned from the Republican National Convention and its transportation problems, if Hillsborough and Pinellas counties hope to emerge as world-class destination points, they need a world-class transportation system. It shouldn't take another two decades to address that simple question.