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.

MORE: Pinellas to get two elevated toll roads in the Gateway area by 2022

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.

MORE TRANSPORTATION NEWS: Tons of concrete, 300 workers, and voila! Brandon to St. Pete without hitting a stop light

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 or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.


  1. "Lefty Lucy, Righty Tighty?", Siomara Bridges-Mata, 32, asks her coworkers as they assemble one of 900 bikes Friday when Amalie Arena transformed into Santa's Bike Shop. Bridges-Mata volunteered with Frameworks of Tampa Bay, Inc. JOHN PENDYGRAFT  |  Times
    Local nonprofit Onbikes organizes the annual bike build to provide bicycles to kids in the community
  2. Service dog Eleanor Rigby unexpectedly gave birth to eight puppies at Tampa International Airport as her human family was waiting near gate F81 to board a flight to Philadelphia in May 2018. The airport is getting ready to add pet-relief areas at its airsides for service dogs. (EMILY NIPPS | Tampa International Airport) Tampa International Airport
    Work on the new amenities is expected to be completed by next July.
  3. This Wednesday, June 21, 2017, file photo shows the building that houses the headquarters of Uber, in San Francisco. Uber acknowledged more than 3,000 sexual assaults occurred during U.S. Uber rides in 2018, the company said in a long-awaited safety report. ERIC RISBERG  |  AP
    That figure includes 229 rapes across the company’s 1.3 billion rides.
  4. Michele Arceneaux, former president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, speaks during a press conference against three proposed toll roads in the Florida Capitol on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. LAWRENCE MOWER  |  Lawrence Mower
    The announcement came as the Florida Chamber of Commerce touted the proposed roads.
  5. The Cross-Bay Ferry cruises along the Vinoy Yacht Basin as it heads toward Tampa. The Vinoy condominiums can be seen in the background. The city hopes to attract more vessels for entertainment and tourism to the downtown waterfront. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
    Most of the increase is tied to an additional round-trip sailing on Sundays.
  6. The intersection at Seminole Boulevard and East and West Bay Drive forbids drivers from turning right, even on a green light. FDOT
    The intersection at Seminole Boulevard and the East/West Bay Drive is the only one in the district where drivers are restricted on green-light turns.
  7. Abiona Adadevoh addresses the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board Monday about an attack last month on bus driver Schnaider Prophete. Prophete, center, was saved bus bus rider John Phelps, right, when a passenger attacked him with mace and a box cutter. Caitlin Johnston
    The agency has installed safety shields to protect operators on about 80 percent of its fleet so far.
  8. A Brightline passenger train passes by on Wednesday in Oakland Park, Fla. After Richard Branson announced his Virgin Group would partner with Brightline, Florida's new higher-speed passenger rail service, a train whisked the British billionaire, VIPs and journalists from Miami to West Palm Beach in just over an hour and then back, with no problems. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) BRYNN ANDERSON  |  AP
    An Associated Press analysis of Federal Railroad Administration data shows about one fatality for every 29,000 miles traveled.
  9. In this April 24 file photo, American Airlines aircraft are shown parked at their gates at Miami International Airport in Miami. A woman demanding a larger seat on an American Airlines flight is in custody after faking a medical condition that prompted the pilot to head back to Pensacola. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File) WILFREDO LEE  |  AP
    The woman wanted a larger seat on an American Airlines flight.
  10. Herbert Hayden, front, got help cleaning up his mobile home from people he met on the bus. Then they formed a lasting friendship. From left are bus driver Barbara Irizarry and riders Judy Martin and Hopeton Johnson.  "We're a family now," Martin said. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Three friends who met on Route 11 stepped off the bus to help an older passenger whose home maintenance had gotten away from him.