As the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority ushered in the new year, it passed the one-year anniversary for the North County Connector system. That's the service started in December 2012, using small, wheelchair-accessible shuttles to run three designated routes through North Pinellas and the surrounding area.
The buses deviate from their routes to pick up and drop off passengers from nearby locations such as homes, businesses, malls and movie theaters.
"It was pretty much the first new service to our part of the county that hadn't gotten any transportation service in 20 years," transit system CEO Brad Miller said.
Ridership steadily increased from December 2012 through October 2013, Miller said. The three routes had a total of 33,480 passengers, with two routes seeing record highs in October.
The most popular route starts at Westfield Countryside mall in Clearwater and goes past Oldsmar to Hillsborough County, ending at the HART Northwest Transfer Center. On Saturdays, Miller said, that's the only way residents can get from North Pinellas to Tampa using public transit.
The other two routes cover more destinations in Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs.
PSTA as a whole had record ridership in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, breaking the old mark by 450,000 passengers.
The connector routes cost about $700,000 per year to run.
Greenlight Pinellas, a public transit referendum on the November ballot, will propose funding transit with a 1 percent sales tax as opposed to a property tax. If the measure passes, PSTA could run the connector buses twice as frequently and add service on Sundays.
Residents could also see more connector-style buses in places like downtown St. Petersburg, Carillon Park and Seminole.
"We will likely look to the success of the North County Connectors and mimic that in those areas," Miller said.
The biggest challenge PSTA faced was making a schedule that allowed for flexibility and route deviations, but didn't create too much extra time where passengers had to wait around. It took two months to strike the right balance, Miller said. They also made bus allocation adjustments after studying the popularity of each route.
"Otherwise it's been received very positively," he said.