Last week, when state Rep. Linda Chaney announced plans to craft a bill that would change the special act behind Pinellas County’s transit authority for the first time in more than 20 years, she offered few details but repeated one refrain: “transparency and accountability.”
So when a draft of Chaney’s proposed legislation emerged this week, its existence wasn’t a shock — least of all to Brad Miller, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO, who said he’d known for more than a month that Chaney was considering a bill. What did surprise Miller was the proposal’s scope.
“I thought it was going to focus on transparency and accountability based on what she said,” he said. “And then once you see it, it’s big. I mean, it has a lot of stuff.”
The bill would dramatically change the transit authority, most notably by overhauling the makeup of its board of directors and giving the Pinellas County Commission substantial control over it.
The transit authority board would shrink from 15 members to nine, seven of whom would be county commissioners — or, if they preferred, appointees from within their districts. St. Petersburg would be the only city with a guaranteed seat. The ninth would be appointed by Florida’s governor. The County Commission would get the final say on transit authority decisions about property sales and purchases, eminent domain, bus lanes and free-fare programs.
Among the other changes is a new job description for the agency’s CEO that would consider private-sector experience as a qualification. The bill also proposes adding language that emphasizes the transit authority’s ability to contract with private corporations, an ability it already has.
Chaney, a Republican from St. Pete Beach, said she believes an overall decline in ridership over the past decade, coupled with an increase in the agency’s budget, shows that the transit authority needs to change.
“We’re spending more taxpayer dollars for less service, and only 6% of PSTA revenue is from the farebox,” she said. “PSTA is a 94% taxpayer subsidized program. That, to me, requires close scrutiny by the legislative body that created them.”
Property taxes made up about 61% of the transit authority’s operating budget in the fiscal year that ended in September. Another 27% came from state and federal grants. Its tax revenues have increased as property values climb, but its tax rate — which is capped by state law — has not.
To Miller, the magnitude of the proposed changes was surprising in part because he and others around the transit authority view it as being in a season of success. The SunRunner, its St. Petersburg-to-St. Pete Beach rapid bus line, carried more than a million passengers in its first year. This month marks new free ridership programs for veterans and low-income St. Petersburg residents, the latter funded by the city. And last month, the agency collected an industry award naming it the best transit authority of its size in the United States.
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But it’s also had a very public recent conflict, one with its nexus in Chaney’s district. Earlier this year, St. Pete Beach residents began complaining about homeless riders taking the SunRunner to the beach. Those riders’ activities — sleeping on the beach, panhandling, alleged crimes such as trespassing and public urination — were destroying the quality of life in one of Pinellas’ wealthiest cities, residents said.
Under pressure from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the transit authority imposed a fare on the previously free route at the beginning of October, sooner than it had planned. Ridership has dropped, Miller said, but Gualtieri “hasn’t been calling me every morning.”
Chaney’s proposal touches on both free fares and bus-only lanes, another SunRunner feature that’s stirred some discontent in her district. During a meeting of the transit authority’s legislative committee Wednesday, David Allbritton, a Clearwater City Council member who sits on the transit authority board, said he believed the proposed bill stemmed from the vitriol against the SunRunner in St. Pete Beach.
“We do a great job, and we don’t need this,” he said. “To me, it’s payback.”
Chaney denied that her bill was a response to the SunRunner controversy, though she said it may have amplified consternation about the agency’s spending.
During Wednesday’s meeting, board members said they were baffled or put off by the proposed bill. Several said they’d be open to legislators looking for ways to update the special act, which has not been changed in more than two decades, but they didn’t see the need for such drastic change.
Gina Driscoll, a St. Petersburg City Council member who is chairperson of the transit authority board, noted that an investigation ordered by the legislature into troubles at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority hasn’t been finished. Why not wait for takeaways from that report before proposing changes to the more stable Pinellas agency, she asked.
“I think waiting on another example and looking at recommendations from a nearby authority could be helpful,” she said. “I would love to learn more about what’s been identified that’s broken. At first glance, this (proposed bill) appears to be a solution in search of a problem.”
Because Chaney’s proposal is for a local bill, it needs the approval of Pinellas’ other state lawmakers before it can be filed. The legislative delegation — made up of six Republicans and three Democrats — will vote on those bills at its next meeting on Nov. 29. Oldsmar Mayor Dan Saracki on Wednesday urged his fellow board members to put pressure on other lawmakers before then, in an effort to kill the bill before it has a chance to live.
“Given the performance that PSTA has demonstrated, the recent award — you don’t get that stuff by being bad at what you do,” Driscoll said. “If anything, I think they should be looking at how we do things.”