PSTA approves rate hike for bus system for people with disabilities

03/23/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Disabled bus riders who rely on Pinellas County’s on-demand bus system to get around will have to make a little more room in their budgets if they want to keep riding. The county’s transit board raised the system’s fares by 50 cents in what they’re calling a stop-gap measure to help deal with massive revenue shortfalls.

Pinellas Park activist Marshall Cook said he uses Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s Demand Response Transportation, or DART, system to get to- and- from the Bay Pines Veterans’ Administration Medical Center, among other places. As of April First, his round trip will cost him a dollar more – eight instead of seven. The wheelchair-bound Cook said he understands why PSTA is raising the fare, but the rate hike isn’t good news for his and his wife’s tight budget.

"People don't have the money, I don't have the money. The federal government has said, 'Well Marshall, you and your wife are absolutely fine. You don't need a cost of living increase this year or last year.' The fact of the matter is my wife's medical bills for September alone were $280,000 just for the hospital. And the hospital is sending me something saying 'Hey, man, when are you going to pay us $1,000' Well, one day maybe when I get it, they'll get it. Good luck."

The rate increase is one of several measures the PSTA board adopted to battle the DART system’s $441,000 deficit. Others include paying the subcontractors who operate the system’s buses 10 percent less, encouraging passengers to coordinate trips to and from the same destinations, and digging into the system’s reserve funds. PSTA community relations manager Bob Lasher said system-wide, the county’s transit provider has had to deal with loss of some 40 percent of ad valorem tax revenue in recent years.

"We're ad valorem funded, property tax funded. We've lost, now, almost 40 percent."

Lasher said the county can’t save money by privatizing the program since it’s a federally mandated program that helps people get around who perhaps otherwise couldn’t.

"DART is what we's part of a federally-mandated parallel transit. A lot of people hear para-transit, that stands for parallel transit. It runs parallel to the fixed bus route systems all across the nation. The same times along those routes and it goes within 3/4 of a mile of the route. It's for people who can't, say for disabilities or whatever the reason might be, ride or be accommodated on the regular bus system. It also tends to be very expensive but it opens up transit to a lot of people who couldn't otherwise use it."

He said the system escaped a fare increase in previous fiscal years, even as standard PSTA fares went up in October of last year.

"Last October, based on ridership estimates, we thought that we could leave that fare alone and raise the other fares and still break even. It just hasn't turned out, so what they've done is match what we've done throughout our history."

In addition to Marshall Cook, two others addressed the DART rate hike during public testimony. One was Vivian Peters, who said while she supported the 50-cent hike, she doesn’t believe the board is being realistic in assuming it will save nearly $10,000 by encouraging passengers to coordinate their travel, a practice known as multi-loading.

"Very few people [starting at] the same place going to the same place. It just doesn't happen."

The PSTA board passed the rate hike unanimously. Citing DART’s 10.6 percent ridership increase over a one year period, board member and Dunedin City Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said the increase is painful but necessary.

"Because of the economic times there's more riders and because of the high subsidies today and because we're federally mandated that we have to do it. It's not something we can just say we're not going to do. And because our revenues have gone down, obviously, just like everybody else we have to find the money somewhere."

Board member and St. Petersburg City Council member Herb Polson said while the rate hike will help a little in making up for a gaping budget hole, it’s still like putting a Band-Aid on a cut artery.

"It'll stifle the flow a little bit but it will not fix the problem. But we have to take some action because, as we just heard, it's a requirement by the feds to provide this service. We must do it and we must do it as efficiently and effectively as we possibly can."

Board Chair and Indian Rocks Beach Mayor R.B. Johnston said the budget challenges couldn’t have come at a worse time, given that Pinellas County’s transit is trying to measure up to public transit in metropolitan areas of comparable size.

"We've been working towards expansion of our system for the last several years. Largely because PSTA provides inadequate service levels for a metropolitan area of our size. So we have a lot of issues that we're dealing with, this is just one piece of the puzzle right now."

Today’s hearing was the final of three the board held throughout the county this month in order to gain public input on the proposed rate hike. The change goes into effect April First. It comes at the same time PSTA is studying a possible countywide transit overhaul that may include rail. In November, Hillsborough County voters voted down a sales tax increase that would have funded a similar proposal.

Previous WMNF news coverage of the PSTA

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