ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County's bus agency, which is struggling with a looming deficit, voted Wednesday not to cut any routes — yet.
Board members of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority are hoping to find an additional $5 million in annual money that would allow them to continue service on a handful of bus routes throughout the county. The routes in St. Petersburg, Seminole, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Safety Harbor have been slated for elimination, along with door-to-door paratransit service in certain areas for people who unable to ride the bus.
The agency has until July to come up with the additional money. If not, those routes will be eliminated starting in October, leaving the riders who depend on them stranded with fewer options or longer trips. The cuts would affect hundreds of riders and save about $810,000 annually, according to agency estimates.
More than a dozen people Wednesday asked the board not to eliminate routes, adding their names to the more than 300 individuals who previously spoke out against the cuts.
Many who addressed the board were people who relied on the bus for work, school or doctors appointments.
"With the changes, I'm using three buses to get one place," said Yvonne Ross, who takes the route 38 bus to the grocery store and other errands. "Yes, I'm retired, I'm very fortunate. But I don't want to spend four hours to get to one place."
Mark Shaw of Seminole has been riding the bus to work since 2009. He urged board members to keep the route 58 bus, which serves businesses along Bryan Dairy Road and 118th Avenue N.
"It's surprising to me that you'd want to get rid of a bus route where the only people who are riding it are going to school or work," Shaw said. "Please just keep our bus."
The board's vote protects those routes for now. In order to keep them running long-term, officials will have to secure the $5 million in addition to their existing $80 million budget.
Transit leaders have long bemoaned the bus agency's limited resources. Pinellas is one of the most underfunded transit agencies in the country for an area of its size. Hillsborough County struggled with the same issues until voters approved a one-cent sales tax for transportation in November, more than doubling the transit authority's budget.
Additional money could come from a similar sales tax, increasing the gas tax, using general funds in the county budget or requiring all areas in Pinellas to pay property taxes for transit. Currently, residents of some cities such as St. Pete Beach and Treasurer Island do not contribute to the bus agency's budget, though they still receive some service.
All of these options have been discussed previously, but have been stymied either by political inaction or rejection by voters. Officials are aiming to hold another transit funding workshop in May or June to identify the best funding source.
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"We're trying to do whatever we can within our authority to not cut service," transit board member and county commissioner Janet Long said. "Right now we are trying to buy some time to give all the greatest minds on this issue an opportunity to put a solid plan together that is driven by data."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.