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PSTA exploring partnership with Uber for north Pinellas pilot project

Pinellas County's transit agency is working on a partnership with Uber to get riders to and from bus stops and transfer hubs in north Pinellas County.

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority chief executive officer Brad Miller met with Uber representatives Monday to discuss a pilot project that, if successful, could be expanded to other parts of the county, Miller said.

"We're very much looking to provide alternatives to as many people in Pinellas County as we can and a partnership with Uber would really fit a niche," Miller said.

Under the proposal, riders would contact Uber to set up a one-way ride from a prearranged location to a PSTA bus stop or transfer center within a designated zone. A rider connecting with a PSTA bus could pay Uber an additional $2 to cover the cost the bus fare.

PSTA would pay a subsidy to Uber to lock a discounted rate, which Miller said would be about $4 for a one-way trip.

Miller wants to roll out the pilot project in the area currently served by the East Lake Connector, one of four underperforming routes on the chopping block in a plan that PSTA's board of directors will consider at a public hearing set for 9 a.m. Wednesday.

The connector service runs along Keystone and East Lake roads between Tarpon Mall and the Shoppes at Boot Ranch. Other PSTA routes have stops at both locations. Riders who live within 3/4 of a mile of the route can make a reservation and the bus will come to them. It's the agency's second-lowest performing route, with an average weekday ridership of 26.

PSTA also offers a subsidized taxi service to Boot Ranch and the Tarpon Mall called the East Lake Shuttle for the same $2 price of a regular bus fare, but reservations must be made the day before the trip. The Uber ride would cost more but provide instant service, Miller said.

PSTA will provide ridership numbers to Uber and work to develop a proposal to bring to the PSTA board, Miller said.

One of the Uber representatives at the meeting was Christine Mitchell, general manager of Uber in Tampa Bay.

"We are encouraged by the interest and our initial conversations with the PSTA," Mitchell said in an email to Bay Buzz. We have found that many Pinellas County residents are regularly using our platform as a way to connect with local public transit, and we're excited at the potential for a formal partnership."

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who has filed legislation to allow the companies to operate legally anywhere in Florida, set up and attended the meeting.

Brandes noted an increasing number of transit agencies are looking to Uber, especially to solve the "first mile, last mile" problem of getting riders from bus stops to their ultimate destination. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority has discussed partnering with a rideshare company despite that county's Public Transportation Commission's efforts to shut down the company. No such controversy exists in Pinellas, and PSTA is smart to explore options to improve customer service, Brandes said.

"I think both parties saw they can meet each other's needs in a unique way, and that's a fantastic foundation for a strong partnership," he said.