Pinellas transit agency writes governor, welcomes new executive director

05/25/11 Kate Bradshaw
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In a week where his approval rating hit an all-time low of just 29 percent, Governor Rick Scott’s mailbox appears to be brimming with correspondence from agencies across the state. Whether or not he’ll read his mail, Pinellas County’s transit board is among the latest to write the governor urging him not to ax funding.

Although the state legislature left funding intact for the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, also known as TBARTA, the governor may not. PSTA board Chair RB Johnson said TBARTA is dependent on state funds, and diminishing that agency would have a region-wide impact.

"PSTA has been working diligently with TBARTA to move forward with different plans to move people around the Tampa Bay area in a better, more efficient, and more frequent manner. Without the funding for TBARTA that would cripple all of our efforts."

Today Rick Scott’s office announced he’ll sign his so-called “jobs” budget tomorrow in tea party hub The Villages. The PSTA Board voted unanimously to send a letter urging the governor to keep funds for the regional agency intact. Transit leaders across the state are already concerned about the legislature’s cuts to the Transportation Trust fund, a key source of dollars for road construction projects. The current budget takes $150 million from the fund, and uses it to fill holes in programs like Medicaid. Some estimate it could kill more than 8,000 jobs. TBARTA Executive Director Bob Clifford said raiding the fund would mean an even greater loss to the state.

"That actually equates to $334 million of actual projects and money in the FDOT work program that will effect this current year and next fiscal year."

Some lawmakers had pushed for cuts of more than $880 million from the fund, but even governor Scott reportedly favored a smaller slash because of the substantial return every dollar invested in transportation can have. Meanwhile, local transit agencies like PSTA are having a tough time filling budget holes with their current funding models. PSTA Board Chair RB Johnston said in the short term, that means looking at cuts, or perhaps raising millage. In the long term, he said, it may mean shifting their main revenue source from property taxes to the sales tax.

"Property values and property tax revenues have been declining for the last 3 or 4 years. We rely heavily on the property tax millage to fund our operating budget here and really, right now, we're trying to figure out a way to keep the same levels of service with declining revenue. Over a long haul that's virtually impossible."

Even as the agency faces some tough budget years, officials want to tackle future transit woes before they happen. Johnson said PSTA is about halfway through its alternatives analysis, which is a public transit outline required for federal dollars. He said the plan is still to go from Downtown Clearwater to Gateway, and from there to St. Pete, but now the specifics are a little more in focus.

"The committee that has been working on this project advisory committee, has narrowed down the east-west corridors to essentially going along the CSX line and then along East Bay-West Bay to get to the Gateway area. As far as the north-south corridor we're looking at sort of a hybrid corridor that goes along 275 and then takes a jog over towards Pinellas Park and then comes back to 275 on the way to Gateway."

He said it’s not clear what the preferred transit mode will be, but light rail and bus rapid transit are top choices. Earlier this week, Hillsborough County’s transit board opted to kill its alternatives analysis. The move came six months after voters nixed a proposed upping of the sales tax to fund transit, and weeks after the agency’s CEO was fired. Johnson said while a region-wide approach to transit is important, PSTA is going to keep moving on its own study.

"Obviously we're trying to have as much coordination as possible between the two counties and our alternatives analysis is actually looking at the link across the bay from Gateway across the new Howard Franklin Bridge to the Westshore area to link up with whatever Hillsborough County is doing."

Johnson said he’s confident incoming PSTA executive director Brad Miller, will help get the agency where it needs to go.

"He has a lot of experience running the agency in Des Moines, and also working in Charlotte putting into place their light rail system. I think he'll be able to help us in planning for the future and taking PSTA to the next level."

Miller spoke with reporters at PSTA headquarters today. He said he’d like to look at the sales tax as a source of revenue, and sees a lot of potential for future transit projects.

"The density of development that is here in Pinellas seems very strong and there seems, at least in my three whole days in the county so far, that there's a lot of support, sort of organic support for public transit here."

He said the recent transit troubles in Hillsborough don’t faze him, and the fact that there’s turmoil shows that the community is invested in transit.

"Everywhere where transit is valued it becomes more political. That's the right way to do it because it needs to reflect what the community wants and what the community wants to invest in."

Last week the St. Petersburg Times reported that the PSTA wasn’t releasing its contract with Miller, and said it only did so after what the paper called internal prodding. PSTA spokesperson Bob Lasher said it was a matter of miscommunication. Miller said the agency should have gotten the document out earlier, and that he’d all for transparency.

"I'm very honored by the contract that the PSTA board has agreed to. My starting salary is going to be $170,000. Yeah, I certainly hope to come here and run a very transparent and open business. Unfortunately there was, I think, a communications problem there."

Miller starts full time on July 5. He will be present at a workshop in two weeks where PSTA officials are holding a workshop next Wednesday to talk about a potential shift in its revenue sources.

Previous WMNF news coverage of the PSTA

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