PSTA going public with plans to cut service due to budget woes

Pinellas County Commissioner and PSTA Board Chair Janet Long said the agency needs to find solutions to the County’s transit needs, especially for the elderly and disabled, during a Jan. 23 meeting.

ST. PETERSBURG — PSTA staff has been talking about a plan to cut low performing bus routes and then using the savings to boost the more popular ones. The goal is to create an improved core network and add innovative mobility.

However, recent budget projections show that plan is not going to work.

PSTA CEO Brad Miller shared the news with Board members during a Jan. 23 meeting. He said the budget for the current year and projections for the future show there isn’t enough money to sustain services. While the agency still has healthy reserves, that one-time money will soon be gone.

Staff now plans to start getting public input on proposed service reductions.

Director of Planning Heather Sobush said over the past 10 years, PSTA’s five-year budgets have consistently shown deficits, but staff has been able to find savings to offset them. Not this time.

After the first quarter of the current fiscal year, which began in October, “it does not appear savings can be realized to offset the deficit,” Sobush said.

A chart depicting the budget forecast shows how expenditures are outpacing existing revenue. Looking out in future years, the situation just gets worse, as reserve money is spent.

And there is no place to make budget cuts except by reducing service because PSTA is “really efficient,” Sobush said, which makes it “harder to squeeze the budget to do more.”

She showed another chart comparing operating cost per total vehicle hour of PSTA and peer agencies. PSTA has the lowest cost. PSTA also has the lowest per capita spending on transit compared to 18 other similarly sized agencies.

Sobush said without additional funding, service cuts would have to be made. If PSTA could get $5 million-$15 million more in recurring funding, it could maintain current service levels. But to improve service, it would take an additional $50 million-$80 million in recurring funding.

Proposed service cuts include paratransit service, aka Demand Response Transportation services, to Shore Acres and in northern parts of the County. These special services are for disabled persons who cannot ride a regular bus. The proposed cuts will be made where PSTA was providing DART service outside the area required by the Americans with Disability Act.

Proposed bus service cuts include:

• Route 814, the Safety Harbor Connector.

• Route 58, Bryan Dairy Road from Carillon to St. Petersburg College in Seminole.

• Route 22, 22nd Avenue in St. Petersburg.

• Route 16, 16th Street north of 38th Avenue North in St. Petersburg.

• Route 5, Fifth Avenue North west of Grand Central in St. Petersburg.

All the cuts combined should save PSTA about $2 million.

Sobush said staff didn’t necessarily want to cut service, especially since the public has requested service that is more frequent and more service at night and on weekends.

PSTA Board members approved staff’s request to schedule public hearings on the proposed service cuts. They also discussed ways to get around the problem.

Board member and St. Petersburg Councilmember Darden Rice said PSTA serves the poor and people with disabilities and, for that demographic, ridership was not a factor. However, it was a factor in deciding how to improve core services.

In terms of funding sources, she pointed out that many county commissions support transit services with General Fund money.

“But not Pinellas County,” she said.

Rice said Board members needed to have a “grownup discussion” about what PSTA needs and what the community needs.

“We want more choices for our riders, but also serve the poor and disabled. We want to offer top-notch services,” she said.

Board member and Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers agreed. “It’s not a simple fix," he said, adding “it will take a bigger conversation” – a conversation that should be taken to the public.

Eggers said the Board needed to create excitement about transit and the different needs for transportation.

“We need to talk to residents about what they think is important,” he said.

“We are elected leaders. Our job is to find solutions,” said Pinellas County Commissioner and PSTA Board Chair Janet Long. “What are our collective values? What do we really value? … The time has come to have an honest look at ourselves. What we value.”

Board member and Pinellas Park Councilwoman Patricia Johnson expressed concern about residents who are unable to drive and are dependent on the agency’s services.

“They have to have services to survive,” Johnson said.

Long agreed, saying the need for more help was just a part of the aging process.

“If you keep on breathing, you’re going to get there,” she said, adding that aging often means losing the ability to drive, which “impacts everything,” including being able to “age gracefully in your own home,” interact socially, go the doctor or to the grocery store.”

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.