Gas tax could save PSTA from looming service cuts

The agency is facing a $1.7 million budget shortfall.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board came to a consensus Wednesday that cutting service to some of its bus routes is not a good idea even with a looming budget deficit.

Board members discussed how to accommodate a projected $1.7 million deficit. Staff had recommended cutting about a half dozen routes either by scaling back service or doing away with them altogether. The proposed cuts would have saved the agency $800,000 a year.

“Our whole mission is to increase service and make it more efficient and reliable so people will use public transportation,” Pinellas County Commissioner and PSTA board chair Janet Long told Florida Politics Thursday.

Nothing has officially been decided yet, but Long and her PSTA colleagues all expressed strong reservations about cutting bus routes and, instead, suggested the agency continue dipping into its reserves while they work to identify a short-term stopgap funding mechanism and then longer-term revenue to carry the agency into the future.

PSTA Chief Financial Officer Debbie Leous told the board a $5 million boost to annual revenue, which would most likely come from increasing the county gas tax by 5 cents, would save the agency’s reserves while also averting immediate budget cuts.

If PSTA identified that $5 million in annual revenue by 2020 the agency wouldn’t face service cuts until 2024. They’d still have to dip into reserves to balance the budget in fiscal year 2019, but it would preserve most of the agency’s reserves otherwise.

Without that $5 million, things look much worse. PSTA would completely deplete its reserves, which are typically used for one-time capital investments, and would face additional service cuts in 2022. Those service cuts would be 10 times what the agency is facing right now.

“I’m optimistic that we will be able to find a short term solution,” said PSTA CEO Brad Miller.

Long suggested to her colleagues the agency moves forward without cuts this year.

“We can take what we need out of the reserves, knowing that between now and then we … will be working on a full-bore funding solution,” Long said.

Board members agreed.

“We’re already a nimble agency and by cutting service it’s just not where we want to go,” said St. Pete City Council member Darden Rice. “It just makes our system more inefficient and contributes even more to the stigma of transit being a low quality experience.”

Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers echoed that sentiment and hinted at the possibility of a future transit referendum.

“When you’re talking about cuts it would seem to me that the bus route cutting would be the last thing we do. We have to provide alternatives for the whole county because if at some point we decide we want to go talk about some other source of permanent funding, you better be having something for a quarter of the county that does vote for any kind of referendum,” Eggers said.

Voters killed a 2014 referendum that would have raised sales tax in Pinellas County 1 percent to fund sweeping transit enhancements. After the fact analysis found that one of the top reasons the ballot measure failed was because voters in areas where transit is not frequently used didn’t see value in the new tax.

While the proposed service cuts are still technically on the table, board members present Wednesday offered a pretty clear indication they had no idea with moving forward with a flawed budgetary solution.

Staff will be accepting public comment on the issue during two meetings next month including one April 10 at 6 p.m. and another at the PSTA board meeting April 24.

Janelle Irwin Taylor

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at [email protected].

One comment

  • Chase Hollowell

    March 31, 2019 at 9:07 pm

    Hello Ms. Irwin,

    Are you saying that the board is not sure if they will move forward with route closures due to a flawed budget when you wrote,

    “offered a pretty clear indication they had no idea with moving forward with a flawed budgetary solution.”?

    I wonder why they are doing an about face when they clearly stated they needed to cut the lowest revenue producing routes. Do you believe the primary PSTA objective is to ensure the five million they promised to put up in 2019 as part of the 25% they are responsible to pay for the BRT grant is accounted for? They are facing scrutiny now that the Mayor of St. Pete Beach has gone public that they never conscented to provide the 1.5 million they allegedly promissed St Pete Beach is not even sure they want the BRT period. If PSTA is bold enough to come up with allegedly false claims about St.Pete Beach participating in the BRT, then Why wouldn’t they blind side PSTA riders by cancelling the routes? The only reason they are having the second public hearing on April 24th is because a concerned citizen pointed out PSTA forgot (or maybe did not forget) to put the route numbers affected on the Hearing Notice. They have to post the Notice 15 days prior to the Hearing. Also, you said staff will be present at the Hearing. I talked to Juan Luvean in Outreach with PSTA and he is the staff who will be present. No Board Members, no Executives. Sounds like PSTA has made up their mind. The 58 route schedule has some flaws, when pointed out they had no intention of fixing the issue. I have plenty of proof to back up what I just mentioned if you are interested.

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