Low-income residents on late shifts could get free transportation to and from work under a pilot program unveiled Wednesday by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
The TD Late Shift program is a partnership between the PSTA, Uber and United Taxi. The program, funded by a $300,000 grant from the state Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged, could affect up to 6,000 Pinellas workers, PSTA officials said.
The goal of the year-long pilot is to develop a model that can be replicated across Florida and shows a need for greater funding for similar programs.
“We are really moving into the future of transportation,” PSTA CEO Brad Miller said. “This is the future of transportation, but we are actually making it happen on the ground here in Pinellas County.”
Miller added, “Expected outcomes go beyond simply providing rides to customers during non-service hours. We are hopeful to show a direct economic impact by creating new opportunities for unemployed residents who were previously unable to get jobs because of a lack of transportation.”
The announcement came at the end of the 2016 Transportation Summit run by Floridians for Better Transportation.
Miller took the time to announce that the PSTA would also be expanding another pilot program, Direct Connect. The Direct Connect program has been in place in Pinellas Park and East Lake since February. The program allows residents in those areas who live far from a bus stop to call Uber or United Taxi for a lift to or from a designated stop so the resident can catch a bus. The PSTA pays one-half the Uber or cab fare, up to $3.
The program has been such a success, the PSTA is expanding the pilot’s final six months to include the entire county. The expanded program will have a $5 subsidy, leaving riders with an out-of-pocket expense of about $1. Twenty bus stops in the county have been designated as destinations for Direct Connect users. The expanded program will being in the fall.
“I’m really, really excited,” Florida Rep. James Grant said.
The Republican, whose district includes a portion of both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, said he was encouraged by the willingness of Pinellas transportation officials to be open to collaboration with new technologies.
He favorably compared that openness to Hillsborough County, which has failed to embrace the Uber concept. Hillsborough has outlawed such companies as Uber and Lyft. Just this week, the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission said it will consider increasing fines to $900 on ridesharing drivers.
“The message being sent from Pinellas is very welcome and warm to innovation,” Grant said. “Hillsborough is, starting from the top, saying, ‘We don’t want anything that threatens the status quo.’”
In doing so, Grant said, Hillsborough is “disenfranchising the low-income person” by barring them from having a choice of taking transportation that could cost less.
Some of the resistance in Hillsborough and elsewhere comes from taxi drivers and cab companies who fear they could be driven out of business by the lower-cost alternative companies like Uber provide. But Nick Cambas, the owner of United Taxi, said he’s not afraid of that.
“I think there is a place both for Uber and local taxi service,” Cambas said.
And Tom Maguire, Uber general manager, said, “At Uber, we’ve always believed that ridesharing complements public transportation.”
The one-year, pilot TD Late Shift program is scheduled to begin Aug. 1. It will be available from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. when traditional bus service is unavailable. Those who are eligible can get up to 23 free Uber/taxi rides and one $3 daytime trip each month.
Those who use the TD Late Shift program must be Pinellas County residents and have no way to get a ride from household members or others for “life-sustaining” trips. The user also has to prove a low income.