The decline of bus ridership on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) network of routes continues, despite new programs aimed at boosting ridership. At the current rate, PSTA is headed for its lowest total number of bus revenue passenger trips in 10 years.
Five months into PSTA’s current fiscal year (FY), which began October 1st last year, revenue ridership is down 7.6% compared to an already anemic previous fiscal year. PSTA’s lowest ridership in the last decade was 11.5 million riders in FY2009, but they are now headed for 11.1 million riders in the current fiscal year (FY2017)
In this article, “PSTA’s ridership” refers to “Bus Revenue Passenger Trips”, a metric used by PSTA. These trips make up over 90% of all PSTA passenger trips and excludes ridership on the Jolley Trolley, the East Lake Looper and the Looper Trolley, some of which often offer trips completely free of charge. The distinction between revenue-generating trips and free trips is an important one.
Equally important is understanding what a “rider” is (a.k.a “trip”). Simply put, a “rider” is one person getting on a bus. In doing so, they count as one “trip”. Therefore, a person making a round-trip to work, changing buses once, counts as four “trips”. When politicians make statements like “PSTA has one million riders a months”, it is worth remembering that PSTA accounts for approximately 1% of all travel in Pinellas County.
PSTA has taken various steps to try to increase ridership, such as their new tie-in with Uber called DirectConnect. The program allows people to use Uber to get to a PSTA bus stop for $1, and was implemented county-wide this year after being a pilot program in portions of the county last year.
Only 214 rides DirectConnect rides were reported in February, and 699 year to date. PSTA has other programs that it describes as “Innovative Programs”, such as free rides for college students and free or almost free rides for low-income people who qualify. Together, all these “free or almost free” programs now make up about 40% of PSTA’s ridership.
A troubling aspect of the DirectConnect program is that there is no requirement that people using it actually take a PSTA bus. As long as the Uber trip is within specified zones, and begins or ends at one of seven designated bus stops or bus stations around the county, the Uber trip costs $1 (in rare cases a bit more).
PSTA has been made aware that DirectConnect patrons may not actually take the bus at all, but has not addressed this potential for abuse.
Making rides completely free doesn’t seem to work either. PSTA contracts out certain trolley services, including to Jolley Trolley, a Clearwater company. Despite completely free rides in March (see graphic), ridership for the Jolley Trolley was 52,235 in March, down a whopping 34% from 79,045 in March of 2016.
Through the first 6 months of fiscal year 2017, Jolley Trolley ridership dropped 19%, and the most recent numbers from March indicate that the slide is accelerating. The fact that ridership is collapsing sharply in an area where tourism is increasing sharply is noteworthy.
Making the situation considerably less jolly, PSTA was also sued in federal court in last week (see the complaint). The suit alleges that PSTA’s board of directors unlawfully awarded the trolley service contract to Jolley Trolley this past February 22nd.
The plaintiff is First Transit, the vendor that received the most points in PSTA staff evaluation of vendors. First Transit alleges that procurement rules were broken and requirements in the RFP were waived so that the board could override the staff recommendation and instead award the contract to Jolley Trolley.
At the beginning of FY2010, PSTA started reporting “Clearwater Jolley Trolley” ridership as a separate line item to its board of directors. PSTA staff did so in their monthly one-page ridership reports. Here is the first such report, covering October 2009.
PSTA CEO Brad Miller was then hired in May of 2011, and the report format changed four months later at the beginning of FY2012. The line item now became simply “Jolley Trolley” and significantly, its ridership was no longer counted as revenue passenger trips.
Five years later, and one month into the current fiscal year of 2017, Jolley Trolley was removed as a line item in these same one-page ridership reports. This change was made without any explanation (see that ridership report).
The fact that the most recent change in reporting wasn’t made at the beginning of the fiscal year like the previous changes, that the change was made during the trolley services procurement process, and that it was made as Jolley Trolley’s ridership was collapsing, all of these could spell trouble for PSTA.
If it can be shown, for example during the discovery phase of the First Transit lawsuit, that PSTA staff and/or PSTA members, wanted to conceal Jolley Trolley’s poor ridership numbers, then PSTA’s problems are sure to grow. PSTA would likely receive unwanted attention at the state level, just as Tri-Rail recently did.
As PSTA ridership decreases and road congestion increases, citizens have become more aware of PSTA’s lumbering buses executing their daily slow rolling lane blockages on Pinellas county roads. As spending on PSTA keeps increasing, investment in sewers, roads and other important infrastructure continues to lag. Will voters will hold their elected and appointed officials around Pinellas County accountable? Time till well.
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