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  1. Transportation

Citing years of budget struggles, Pinellas' bus agency could cut routes in June

Detarrio Cummings of St. Petersburg gets off the Route 58 bus at the Gateway mall stop on Thursday. To save money, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is preparing to cut a handful of routes, including the 58. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Mar. 8

ST. PETERSBURG — Benjamin Ryckis, 20, relies on the bus to take him to his business classes at St. Petersburg College.

Elizabeth Taylor, 66, is afraid to drive while on her medication, so instead relies on the county bus to access her appointments, errands and the ever-popular Mazzarro's Italian Market.

Jerry Harper, 59, rides two buses each day to get to his job at Mercury Insurance in Carillon in about 30 to 45 minutes.

All that could change for the three St. Petersburg residents and about 1,000 other bus riders if the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority cuts a handful of routes in June. The proposed move would save about $810,000 in operating cost in an $81 million operating budget that is primarily funded by property taxes.

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The county bus agency — one of the most underfunded in the nation compared to others its size — has long warned that it would have to cut service if it didn't get more money.

A 2014 referendum asked Pinellas voters to approve a one-cent sales tax to build light rail and increase bus service by 65 percent. Voters overwhelmingly rejected it.

Back then, the agency warned of bus service cuts of up to 30 percent if it didn't receive the extra revenue. But lower fuel prices and an improving housing market led to a better financial situation than officials predicted.

The agency staved off significant cuts over the past five years, leading some to wonder whether officials were crying wolf during the referendum campaign, known as Greenlight Pinellas.

But officials say it's only through a combination of cost-saving changes in maintenance, purchasing and other administrative tasks that the transit authority has been able to skirt by, despite yearly operating budgets that showed deficits.

CEO Brad Miller and others were hoping the same would be true in 2019. But a quarter of the way into the fiscal year, agency leaders said they were not able to find any additional savings. Years of small cuts added up, leaving little left to be pared away, they said.

The bus agency's board approved a tentative list of service cuts in February that would target three entire routes, portions of three others and the transit authority's paratransit services in northern Pinellas County and eastern St. Petersburg.

County Commissioner and former transit authority board member Ken Welch said leaders knew "that this fiscal cliff was coming," particularly if Greenlight Pinellas didn't pass.

"It's not surprising it came to this point," Welch said. "I think they've cut all of the low ridership routes that they can. Now it's down to really cutting routes that are going to impact a number of our residents."

Some of those routes have been targeted before but managed to escape the axe when riders beseeched the board to keep their lifeline. Route 58, which runs from Seminole Mall to Gateway mall along 118th Avenue and Brian Dairy Road, with service to the Carillon area, narrowly dodged elimination in August 2015. Instead, board members cut Route 30 in St. Petersburg and the East Lake Connector.

Four years later, Route 58 is back on the chopping block, along with Route 22, which connects downtown St. Petersburg with Tyrone Mall via 22nd Avenue N. So is the Safety Harbor Connector, linking Westfield Countryside and Philippe Park. Riders who live within 0.75 miles of the connector can make a reservation in advance and the shuttle will come to them.

Harper, who has ridden county buses for about 5 years, said his work commute would increase by close to an hour if the board eliminated Route 58. He already budgets about 45 minutes to get to the office.

"It would be really hard on some of us," he said while waiting for his connection at Gateway Mall on Thursday. "There are a lot of people that ride this bus that would not have any other access to Carillon, for example."

Ryckis said his trips between home, work and school are pretty efficient now, but would likely require more walking and longer waits between buses if the agency eliminated Route 22.

Transit authority leaders are hoping the county or state might step in with extra money between now and June that could protect a few of the routes slated for cuts or add service to more popular buses.

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Miller, the CEO, recently told the agency's finance committee that Pinellas' transportation planning organization and county commission and the state department of transportation could all possibly come through with solutions in the next couple months. He said he expects all the major players to address the topic with different votes and meetings in April and May.

An influx of $5 million in the transit authority's operating budget would allow the agency to maintain service, avoid the projected cuts and potentially reinvest in some of the core routes, Miller said.

"We're in the process of assessing how we can maybe free up some of those dollars or maybe reallocate them in ways we have not done before," County Commissioner Janet Long said.

Increasing the gas tax, reallocating part of the bed tax, raising the property tax rate, or putting a half-cent or one-cent sales tax on the ballot are all potential solutions being batted around at funding workshops.

Welch spoke favorably of a sales tax on the 2020 ballot. Long has been an ardent supporter of putting bed tax revenues toward transportation. But other commissioners, like Kathleen Peters and Karen Seel, said they would want to see a detailed presentation from the county's transit authority, including data on routes and cost savings from the proposed cuts.

"I want to see it all laid out in a comprehensive matter so we can make informed choices and decisions," Seel said.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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