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Pinellas transit agency faces ridership, service challenges during coronavirus pandemic

Ridership has dropped more than 50 percent since March 1, transit authority data shows.

ST. PETERSBURG — The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority will need to find a new vendor for its paratransit service, which provides door-to-door transportation for those who are unable to take the bus, its executive director told board members Wednesday.

The change comes amidst falling ridership and other challenges in the face of the novel coronavirus. Executive Director Brad Miller included the news about Care Ride, the paratransit provider, in a briefing on how the transit agency has handled COVID-19.

Similar to other bus agencies in Florida, Pinellas has seen a staggering drop in ridership following county and state stay-at-home orders.

Ridership fell more than 50 percent from the first Monday in March to May 18, the most recent Monday in available data.

Similarly, monthly bus ridership in Hillsborough for April dropped 67-percent from the year before, according to data from the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

Both agencies have scaled back the number of buses and routes they’re operating during the pandemic, but Pinellas also decided in March to temporarily remove passenger fares, making the buses free to ride.

The issues with Care Ride are separate from the those stemming from coronavirus, but still must be addressed while the agency also juggles declining ridership and revenue.

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Care Ride is the outside vendor that helps Pinellas County’s transit authority provide door-to-door van service for people who can’t take a bus because of a disability or other reason. Known as Demand Response Transportation, costs of the program have spiked in recent years. Ridership growth of about 18 percent between 2016 and 2018 has increased expenses almost $2 million, Miller said in a past meeting.

Similar to the agency’s bus routes, paratransit ridership also dropped during the last couple months.

Miller told the board Care Ride is partially owned by BayCare Health, which decided to put the company up for sale “and potentially close their doors."

“PSTA is committed to continuing to provide high quality (paratransit) service for the foreseeable future,” Miller said. “We do think the coronavirus pandemic will make that more challenging, but we intend to move as quickly as we possibly can.”

John Petitgirard, executive administrator for Care Ride, said in a statement that the company started service in 1984 and BayCare joined as a partner in 1999.

“Care Ride is proud of its wonderful team and the high-quality and on-time service it has provided to PSTA for decades,” Petigirard said. “Earlier this year, Care Ride shared with PSTA that since the original owners are now mostly retired, the owners plan to close the business and wished to give notice as allowed in the contract.”

Care Ride will continue to provide service during the next year as the transit agency looks for a new contractor, transit authority spokeswoman Stephanie Rank said. Miller said during the meeting this could involve multiple partners, not just one.

Rank said the plan is to issue a request for bids by the end of the summer and award the contract by February. Customers should see no change in service and drivers will be rehired by the new company, Rank said.

Miller said the agency is also rethinking how it decides who is eligible for the federally-required service, and whether they are picked up by a van like those that operate now or another option, like an Uber or Lyt rideshare.

The transit authority had planned to start conducting in-person interviews to see if people qualified for the service. Instead, they’ll shift to phone interviews starting in July, Miller said.

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