“November 4th wasn’t’ the day we were hoping for.”
That sentence could have been uttered by any number of candidates who were squashed in the November elections, but it wasn’t. It came from the lips of someone whose name didn’t even appear on a ballot – Brad Miller. But his stake in the election was no less significant.
Miller heads the Pinellas Suncoast Regional Transit Authority. As CEO of Pinellas County’s public transportation system, Miller had his hopes staked on Greenlight Pinellas to increase his agency’s annual revenue by about $100 million. But it didn’t pass and now Miller is left to ponder what comes next.
Voters rejected a one-penny sales tax increase that would have increased sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent. The extra penny would have gone toward transit and it would have replaced the portion of property taxes that currently fund public transportation. The increase in revenue from $30 million to $130 million would have funded increased bus service, bus rapid transit and new buses to accommodate both. It would have, in part, funded a 24-mile light rail line connecting downtown St. Pete to Clearwater. It would have funded robust ancillary services.
But losing those added transportation perks isn’t what hurts Miller and the PSTA the most. No, that sting is instead losing some of what they already have. Under PSTA’s current funding structure, the agency will only be able to fund its current service levels through 2016. Come 2017, Miller could be forced to cut as much as 30 percent of services just to stay afloat.
“What it will mean is some routes, some neighborhoods of our community will no longer have a transit option,” Miller said.
His voice cracked a little when explaining how and where transportation could take a hit. A lot of the county’s less productive bus routes serve people who don’t have any other means of transportation. There may not be as many of them as on some of the major routes like U.S. 19 and Ulmerton, but those who use it often depend on it more.
Routes in Palm Harbor would likely get cut because buses are unpopular in North County. In fact, it’s largely North County that held Greenlight back. A map released after the election showed the concentration of “Yes” votes veresus where voters rejected Greenlight Pinellas. Nearly all of the support came from downtown and south St. Petersburg. North County precincts almost exclusively voted against the referendum.
Despite the gloomy prospect of massive service cuts, Miller is hopeful. He said the board is expected to start talking about ways to cut costs with the least amount of impact to service during a meeting next month.
Miller said they could look to the private sector for help. In places like Lakeland, transit agencies have contracted with taxi companies to offer a sort of voucher-like system in which riders during off peak hours or who need transportation to off-the-beaten path locations could get help paying for a cab ride. Programs like that remove the necessity for under-used bus lines while still providing adequate transportation to those who need it.
Regardless, Miller said he’s got his work cut out for him.
“We want to get the most service we possibly can within our resources – hopefully one that we keep making improvements no matter what the size is,” Miller said.