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Pinellas transit authority overhaul bill advances, with smaller scope

The legislation, which would cut four seats from the agency’s board of directors, advances to the state Legislature after party-line approval from local lawmakers.
 
The SunRunner — stopped in St. Pete Beach in August — has been touted as one of many recent successes by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. But Republican lawmakers have been critical of the agency, and a bill that would cut its board of directors by nearly a third will advance to the state Legislature after a vote by local lawmakers Wednesday.
The SunRunner — stopped in St. Pete Beach in August — has been touted as one of many recent successes by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. But Republican lawmakers have been critical of the agency, and a bill that would cut its board of directors by nearly a third will advance to the state Legislature after a vote by local lawmakers Wednesday. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]
Published Nov. 29, 2023|Updated Nov. 29, 2023

SEMINOLE — A bill that would restructure the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority will move to the Florida Legislature after Pinellas County’s state lawmakers approved it along party lines Wednesday.

Sponsored by Rep. Linda Chaney, a Republican from St. Pete Beach, the legislation would add several amendments to the special act creating the transit agency, most notably shrinking its board of directors to reduce representation from several cities, including St. Petersburg.

Chaney on Wednesday echoed the same point she made when she announced the bill last month: She believes fewer members will make them “more engaged, make them more accountable to the voters.” And the transit authority needs scrutiny after an overall decline in ridership over the past decade, she said.

But critics of the bill said it made little sense to them, calling it a solution in search of a problem. Several said they fear the measure, if passed, would make the agency less effective.

“I’m just really struggling to see what the compelling state interest is,” said Rep. Michele Rayner, one of three St. Petersburg Democrats who voted against moving the bill forward.

Rep. Lindsay Cross said she worried the bill was the first step toward privatizing public transit. The third opposition vote came from Sen. Darryl Rouson.

The bill lawmakers advanced Wednesday was smaller in scope than the original draft Chaney released at the end of October. That proposal would have dramatically transformed the transit authority, with its board shrinking from 15 members to nine and Pinellas County commissioners getting most of the power over who sits on it.

The original version of the bill also would have given county commissioners the final say over certain transit authority decisions about free-fare programs, property sales and purchases, bus lanes and eminent domain.

The latest version would still downsize the transit authority board, to 11 members, including four county commissioners. There would be six other elected officials — one each from St. Petersburg, Clearwater and three geographically divided groups of cities and towns, which would rotate members — and two citizens appointed by Florida’s Senate president or House speaker.

Changing the board’s composition would eliminate seats currently guaranteed to city officials from St. Petersburg, which has two city council members on the board, as well as Dunedin, Pinellas Park and Largo, which would get members only in some years. St. Petersburg and the Pinellas County Commission, which each appoint a citizen to the board, would have to cede that power to Florida’s Senate President and Speaker of the House.

Those measures were contentious for the bill’s opponents — and for at least one of its supporters. Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, voted in favor of moving the bill forward, and he praised Chaney for the changes she made to the bill after talking to constituents and fellow lawmakers. While he likes the idea for an 11-member board, he said, he doesn’t approve of moving some appointing power to Tallahassee.

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“This may be an area where we could leave local government alone,” he said.

Some aspects of the original draft, including those regarding free fares and property sales, were cut from the version voted on Wednesday. Others were softened — eminent domain powers and bus lane recommendations would remain with the transit board, though they would require a two-thirds vote under the new bill.

The broad scope of the original draft shocked some transit officials. David Allbritton, a Clearwater City Council member who sits on the transit authority board, said at the time that he saw the bill as “payback” for the SunRunner rapid bus line.

The transit authority sees the SunRunner as a success — it has transported more than a million people on its route between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach since it opened in late 2022. But it has sparked vitriol in St. Pete Beach, with residents complaining that homeless riders were disrupting their quality of life. The controversy, along with pressure from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, prompted the transit authority to add fares to the previously free route sooner than originally planned this fall.

Some residents and officials also bemoaned the route’s bus lanes, which replaced all-purpose lanes among much of First Ave. N. and First Ave. S. But studies by the Florida Department of Transportation and the county’s land use and transportation planning agency, Forward Pinellas, show that since the bus lane was added, travel speeds have stayed the same and crashes have decreased.

Those lane changes have been a boon for St. Petersburg, said Chris Steinocher, the president of the city’s chamber of commerce. He urged the lawmakers to put the bill on ice.