Only after a query from the Guardian did PSTA post its full-year ridership data on its website Monday. The data showed a decline of 10.2% in total passenger trips compared to its previous fiscal year. This comes at a time when PSTA seeks to convince the City of St. Pete Beach to more than double its spending with PSTA to fund a new bus line.
PSTA CEO Brad Miller also said in an e-mail that the PSTA board of directors wants future ridership reports “to include the numbers from our various partnership programs (Direct Connect Pilot with Uber/cabs, TD LateShift).”
The redefinition of ridership is reminiscent of the redefinition of readership and circulation in the dying newspaper industry, a move which began a few years ago. While the act of redefining almost doubled circulation numbers, newspapers continue to struggle with profitability as “blue sky” circulation numbers fail to impress advertisers.
In reporting their ridership numbers to the Federal Transit Administration, PSTA must follow strict guidelines. Whatever new definition of ridership PSTA or its board comes up with cannot be used in those federal reports.
PSTA staff and board members are seeking to convince the St. Pete Beach city commission that it should sharply increase its payments to PSTA. Rising from the present $500,00 per year to over $1.2 million, PSTA wants funds in order to fund a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line from downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach. There would also be a one-tiome capital cost of $320,000.
However, St. Pete Beach is in somewhat of a financial pinch and its commissioner may have a limited appetite for the proposal. The city fought and lost two lawsuits involving Sunshine law violations over the last few years, and had to pay the legal fees of the plaintiffs. Total cost: over $3 million dollars.
In September, after about a year thinking about it, the city decided to sue its former law firm Bryant Miller Oliver (BMO) for malpractice over the debacle. BMO claims that it did nothing wrong. Ironically, PSTA’s General Counsel Alan Zimmet also works for BMO. The legal conflicts of interest, or the appearance thereof, could be an issue.
In addition, the main BMO attorney who allegedly committed malpractice is Susan Churuti, the former county attorney (the top legal official) for Pinellas County. The world of municipal law is apparently a small one.
The BRT issue was first discussed in an open meeting before St. Pete Beach commissioners at a 100 minute long city workshop on October 11th. Citizens objected to the BRT plan on several grounds, including that a regular bus route already exists from downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach.
“Most of you know that I’m all about change” said Robert Czyszczon, owner of Plaza Beach Resort, during public comment at the workshop. “I love change, I’m big into technology, big into everything that is beneficial to our city. I don’t think this is going to be beneficial to our city”.
Czyszczon said that he sees “very few” tourists using transit. Most of the tourists who don’t have their own cars use Free Beach Rides or Bat’s Taxi. Of his 14 employees, only one rides the bus, and that person arrives from the south, not from downtown St. Petersburg.
“We really are broke, the city has a lot of other issues”, said Czyszczon, who pointed to $11 million dollars in sewer repairs, pending lawsuits and the undergrounding of power lines as being more important priorities.
“They want their pension funded”, said John Michael, resident on Bay Street in St. Pete Beach. “The majority of the people that ride the [existing] trolley do it at a specific time, coming and going, because they’re employees from the major hotels that are paid so little money that they can’t afford to buy a car. Even if they could, they couldn’t find a place on the beach to park it.”
Michael called the project “bloated government crap”, and called PSTA’s transit hub on 34th Street in St. Pete a “trash dump” and said “nobody wants that in St. Pete Beach.” Michael said that muggings occur at that location.
“Our infrastructure is crumbling. We have roads literally sinking, crumbling and cracking from just the weight we are already dealing with”, said Michael.
“I don’t know how PSTA can come here and quote dollars and put a proposal in front of our commission and our city manager and not actually produce current ridership numbers”, said Eileen Gunther, another city resident. “The reason they are not producing them is because they are down”.
Gunther lives on Pass-a-Grille and said she watches the buses and claimed that no one rides the bus. Because the buses are empty, the buses speed through their narrow streets, Gunther said. She expressed concern that one day a child might get hit. “Somebody’s going to get run over. I’m serious.”
No citizen spoke in favor of the BRT proposal, and the Tampa Bay Times’ coverage of the workshop had the headline “St. Pete Beach commissioners cool to PSTA bus route proposal”. The commission is scheduled to vote on October 25th. Thank goodness they finally have ridership numbers to look at while making their decision.
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