PSTA’s proposed 2023 budget: Higher wages, zero-emission buses

Fuel, maintenance and staff costs are rising, but the upcoming SunRunner project is expected to boost ridership.
The SunRunner rapid transit line, opening in September, is expected to increase Pinellas-Suncoast Transit Authority ridership by establishing a route between downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches.
The SunRunner rapid transit line, opening in September, is expected to increase Pinellas-Suncoast Transit Authority ridership by establishing a route between downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published June 30, 2022|Updated June 30, 2022

Beset with rising costs and sagging ridership, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority unveiled the first look at next year’s budget Wednesday.

The $155.4 million budget for the 2023 financial year, bolstered by federal aid, is aimed at boosting ridership and moving the agency closer to its long-term sustainability goals. The budget also includes union wage increases making PSTA bus operators the highest paid in the state.

Approximately $43.8 million of the budget is for capital expenses such as new, zero-emission buses. The capital budget through 2027 is a proposed $154.5 million, and the agency says it does not project any cuts to the number of routes offered in that period.

“Every day, we’re looking to save money, trim the fat, be more efficient with our transit system,” said Al Burns, PSTA’s budget and procurement director. He said the agency is projecting to be “balanced for the next two years” and should be able to maintain its “admittedly limited bus services” and the SunRunner, set to open in September, for the next few years.

The draft reveal comes at time when PSTA is facing a litany of rising costs, impacting everything from price of workers’ health insurance to bus parts and gas.

“We have come across a lot of challenges over a number of months while putting this budget together,” Deborah Leous, the agency’s chief financial officer, said at Wednesday’s board meeting.

The proposed operating budget for the next financial year is increasing by about $17 million, or 18%, compared to the projected expenses of this year. But the agency predicts revenue will rise too, with fare revenues, property taxes and state grant revenues on the up — leading to a $1.4 million surplus in the operating budget to be transferred to the reserves.

The pandemic pummeled transit agencies across the country, with cities from Boston to San Francisco slashing bus and rail services amid plummeting revenue.

In Tampa Bay, public transit expansion has been a hard sell long before the coronavirus. The annual number of passengers riding PSTA buses has been in steady decline during the past decade and the operating expense per ride has increased.

Ridership has fluctuated in recent months: There was a 3.6% increase in passenger trips from April to May of this year. Some officials say spiking gas prices might be coaxing some Floridians out of their cars and on to buses.

But there were almost 700,000 fewer passenger trips on PSTA fixed routes from June 2021 to May 2022, compared with the same period the fiscal year before, according to agency data. The agency did not charge fares from March 2020 until early July 2021.

The agency is banking on the SunRunner, the first Bus Rapid Transit project in Tampa Bay, to draw new riders when it opens this fall.

The Federal Transit Administration is responsible for almost three-quarters of the funding for next year’s PSTA capital budget, which includes the purchase of zero-emission buses and charging equipment, and the replacement of some shelters. The City of St. Petersburg is on the hook for 0.66% of capital funding.

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With federal funds, PSTA is set to purchase 60 electric vehicles over the next five years — a move which the agency says will reduce long-term fuel costs and maintenance.

Earlier this year, four Tampa Bay mayors were asked to explain how the region should respond to climate change. They all talked about transportation, stressing the importance of an efficient, accessible public transportation system to help cut vehicle emissions.

PSTA board members will review the draft budget over the summer. Public hearings will be held in September.