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In cost-cutting move, PSTA scraps two bus routes, spares two more

Faced with a decision to cut four little-used bus routes to save about $2.6 million in operating and capital costs, Pinellas County's transit board opted to end two and save two — at least for now.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board of directors voted unanimously Wednesday to eliminate Route 30 in St. Petersburg and the East Lake Connector. The board delayed a decision on Route 58 in the Largo area and the 444 in Pinellas Park after a parade of people pleaded to keep them.

In making the recommended cuts, chief executive officer Brad Miller assured the board that riders of all four routes have other options to get around, but board members wanted agency staffers to do more to make riders aware of them.

"We all said we want to offer viable alternatives to the users, so it's incumbent on us to make sure they know what those alternatives are," said board vice chairwoman Julie Ward Bujalski.

Route 30, which has an average weekday ridership of 66, travels 30th Avenue N between Tyrone Square Mall and Northeast Shopping Center.

The East Lake Connector runs along Keystone and East Lake roads between Tarpon Mall and the Shoppes at Boot Ranch to the south. Riders who live within 0.75 miles of the route can make a reservation in advance and the shuttle will come to them. It's the agency's second-lowest-performing route, with an average weekday ridership of 26. Cutting both routes will save $543,000 in operating expenses and nearly $1 million in capital costs.

The route with the lowest ridership, however, was saved. The prospect of eliminating the 444, which averages 22 boardings a day, drew the most opposition from the dozen people who spoke Wednesday. It serves retirement communities such as St. Giles Manor and runs along 78th Avenue N to U.S. 19.

Robert Snell said he and his wife, Janet, both of whom use wheelchairs, ride 444 several times a week to get to the mall and Walmart to buy groceries and prescription medications.

"It would mean the loss of independence for many of us, especially the disabled," Snell said.

Miller noted that PSTA offers subsidized taxi and shuttle rides for low-income and disabled riders, and the agency is working to expand an existing partnership with Neighborly Care Network to provide shuttle service to communities like St. Giles Manor.

Miller is also exploring a partnership with the ridesharing service Uber to provide subsidized rides to PSTA bus stops and transfer centers.

"We do not intend to leave people behind," Miller said.

The fourth flagging bus line, Route 58, runs from Seminole Mall to Gateway mall along 118th Avenue and Brian Dairy Road, with service to the Carillon area. It has an average weekday ridership of 211, but many of those riders would be accommodated by tweaking another route to serve St. Petersburg College's Seminole campus, according to PSTA staff.

Thanks largely to an improving housing market and lower fuel prices, the PSTA is in better financial shape than officials predicted during the last year's campaign for the failed Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum. Back then, agency officials warned of bus service cuts of up to 30 percent.

As an agency, the PSTA still faces financial challenges and has embarked on a multiyear plan to make its bus system more efficient. Next month, the board will consider a plan to increase fares to bring in an additional $1 million next year.

A hike to the property tax that funds the agency is being considered, but Miller is recommending against the increase now that the PSTA has locked in much lower diesel fuel prices to save nearly $1.25 million next year.

Board members acknowledged Wednesday that sparing the two routes might be putting off the inevitable.

"We have to look at return on investment," board member Darden Rice said. "Unfortunately, it just gets to a point where we have to make tough decisions."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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