This week, I am beginning a new transit fan series called PSTA Adventures. This series will focus on my periodic trips around Pinellas County using the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (or PSTA) bus system.
Before I go in depth into my inaugural post, I would like to first provide some background as to why I am beginning this particular series at this time. I know that some of you will probably want to ask me, “Why not start something like this on the HART bus system?”. The answer is very simple; I now reside in St. Petersburg and am aiming by the end of the year to reduce my dependency on a car. I made this cross-bay move from South Tampa to be closer to my day job – which is situated in the Carillon Business Park. I lived in South Tampa since 1991, but have had to deal with long and strenuous commutes since 2010 – many of which were exceeding 45 minutes in each direction. Now my work commutes are no more than 15 minutes each way, which dramatically cuts down on fuel consumption.
My goal is that by the end of the year, I will be purchasing a folding bike – yes, a folding bike – to be able to further decrease my car usage and be able to use public transit more regularly. I am very much interested in folding bikes because, 1) they are a space saver – especially for those (like me) who live in a relatively small apartment unit, and 2) because transit agencies are gradually taking notice of folding bikes and are allowing them to be brought on board the bus or train – given that the bikes are folded up properly before boarding, and that they are kept clear of aisles and doors. I am very happy to say that both PSTA and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (or HART) both allow folding bikes on board their buses. Just be sure to adhere to what I just mentioned, or the operator will be giving you unpleasant looks when you board. I don’t want to see you get into any trouble because you didn’t properly fold your bike or your bike was blocking an aisle or door.
With this said, let’s begin our journey on board PSTA!
Since April of 2014, my fellow transit blogger and friend Zachary Ziegler – known to many as Transit509 – had been considering another visit to the Tampa Bay Area. His first visit was back in 2012, where he was able to hop aboard the HART and PSTA bus systems with former HART bus operator Jason Eames – also known as YoBusDriver. In fact, you can read Zac’s previous post about his experience on the PSTA system by going on over to his website, transit509.com. Shortly thereafter, Jason wrote up his own post at his blog, which I also encourage you to read. Both of these posts will give you some good insight as to what they experienced on their previous PSTA bus adventure and will serve as a precursor to the post that I am presenting to you today.
As Zac’s itinerary was confirmed, we began to talk about which bus routes we wanted to travel on. Because both Zac and Jason had seen the Park Street Terminal in Clearwater on their last trip, they thought it would be best to focus this trip on the routes that serve Williams Park and the Grand Central Terminal – both of which are located in St. Petersburg. This plan I definitely did not mind, since I myself had seen the Park Street Terminal several times, and have already taken some photos of the buses that were laying over at the moment. Plus, I had not seen the Grand Central Terminal in person yet, so this would be a perfect opportunity to do so.
When the morning of our bus adventure finally arrived, which was Wednesday, August 12, 2015, I drove on down to CVS Pharmacy to pick up a one-day PSTA GO Card, which is the mag-stripe bus pass that PSTA uses. HART names their bus passes HARTride Passes, which is partially where I got my blogger identity from. PSTA began a partnership with CVS back in 2013 by which CVS would be able to sell certain Go Cards at regular price. In fact, many transit agencies work hard to strike up such agreements with merchants; both national chains and locally-owned businesses, to allow transit pass/card sales so that customers have more choices and flexibility on where they can purchase their next bus or train fare. PSTA and HART currently have similar agreements with many Amscot locations, as well as other select check cashing vendors, gift shops, and other local merchants. I highly recommend that you check with your transit agency to see if they sell transit passes/cards at third party locations.
Being that it was a weekday, we knew that many bus routes would be operating at their peak during the morning hours. Route 74, which runs nearby where I live, operates on a 20 to 30-minute headway during the weekdays, but runs more sporadically on weekends. Route 74 currently connects the Indian Rocks Shopping Center to the Shoppes at Park Place via Park and Gandy Boulevards. The route then takes a turn onto MLK St N to connect to the Gateway Shopping Center (known to many locals as Gateway Mall, as the open-air shopping complex was once the site of a traditional enclosed shopping mall). The route then travels down 77th Ave N and 16th St N towards Williams Park in downtown St. Pete. The Route 74 trip that I was able to take was set to arrive at my bus stop at about 7:37am, by which required me to leave my apartment no later than 7:05am, being that the stop was about a 15 minute walk down the road leading to Gandy Blvd.
As I walked towards my bus stop, I periodically checked the time by which my bus was scheduled to arrive. For this bus adventure, I heavily relied on PSTA’s “Real Time” system, which debuted back in 2012. This GPS based bus arrival and tracker system is extremely useful to many customers, and the same interface is currently used by Sarasota County Area Transit in Sarasota, FL, the Chicago CTA in Chicago, IL, the Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, PA, and the Williamsburg Area Transit Authority in Williamsburg, VA, just to name a few. If you want to check out “Real Time” for yourself, simply type ridepsta.net into your web browser’s URL bar.
Upon arriving at my bus stop, I saw a westbound Route 74 bus passing by – a 2006-series 40-foot Gillig Low Floor, #2601. These buses are very similar in nature to the 2006-series 40-foot Gillig Low Floor buses that HART has. While the interior seating layout and styling vary, the bus fleets are similar to that they both feature “frameless windows”, meaning that the exterior window panes are squared instead of oval. I tried to get a good photo of it, but a sign was in the way. Nonetheless, I decided to keep the photo, which you can see on my Facebook Page, and soon on the PSTA section of my website. By the time that the westbound bus had passed, there was only about 7 minutes left before the eastbound bus would arrive to take me to Gateway Mall, so I took this opportunity to take a few more photos of my surroundings.
The eastbound bus that I wound up boarding was one of the 35-foot 2010-series Gillig Low Floor BRT-style hybrids, #10104. Since their debut in 2009, PSTA’s hybrid-electric bus fleet – which are branded as “The Smartbus” – have been steadily growing. In fact, the hybrid fleet has gone from the agency’s initial purchase of 24 buses from 2009 to 61 buses as of July, 2015, that’s about 30% of the agency’s roughly 200 buses that are currently on the roster. While 2016 presents a huge challenge for PSTA, as a federal grant that previously went to purchasing the hybrids is no longer available, the agency is still heavily committed to exploring buses that use alternative methods of propulsion. The agency hosted back in May of 2015, a demo of the Proterra Catalyst battery electric bus, and more recently on August 31, 2015, a demo of the Complete Coach Works ZEPS Electric Bus; the latter of which Zac has previously blogged on. Zac has also blogged on the BYD (Build Your Dreams) Zero-Emissions transit bus, which will demo at PSTA’s headquarters on September 14, 2015.
It did not take long for the bus to travel to Gateway Mall – only about 10 minutes to be exact – and the bus still was able to arrive relatively on time. Being that I had about 15 minutes to spare before Zac and Jason were scheduled to arrive via Route 100X from Tampa, I took a few photos of the bus loading bays along 77th Ave N. I then went into Office Depot to purchase a portable cell phone charger, which I did at the strong advice of my fellow transit photographer and blogger Anthony Nachor. I’m very glad that I made the purchase because I was able to intermittently charge my phone so that I was in-turn…able to take photos through most of my transit adventure. By the time that 8:00am had arrived, and the doors to Office Depot had opened, Zac and Jason had already arrived, thinking that my bus had arrived later than usual. With that said, it only took me three minutes to get in and out of Office Depot, allowing us a couple of minutes to transfer to the 8:05am eastbound Route 59 trip towards downtown St. Pete.
For breakfast, I suggested that we stop off at Trip’s Diner, which was along the way on MLK St N. I previously had breakfast and lunch there and the food is quite good at reasonable prices. While we were waiting for our food to be served, we talked about various topics – both transit and non-transit related, as well as prepared our cameras and phones for the adventure ahead. We all found it very fascinating that the table that we sat at, specifically the tabletop, had an engraved map of Busch Gardens that dated back to its opening in 1959. Yes, a lot of things have changed with Busch Gardens Tampa since its opening, let alone since my arrival in Tampa Bay back in 1991.
After breakfast, we caught the eastbound Route 59 (bus #2112, a 2001-series 40-foot Gillig Low Floor) to Williams Park, which serves as the downtown St. Pete bus terminal. Bus shelters currently line three sides of the park (the south, west, and north ends), allowing for seamless transfers to adjoining routes while simultaneously allowing one to catch a glimpse of the central amphitheater and other public commons. The east end meanwhile is currently used for street-side metered parking. While at the park, I managed to capture a few photos of various buses that had stopped for layover, as we had several minutes to spare before our connection to the Central Ave Trolley was to depart.
One thing that I will point out is that PSTA operators shut down their buses during layovers and shut the doors if they step away from the bus. I think that this is good thing since there may be a few people out there who may have ill intentions. Bus thefts have indeed happened before, you just might not always hear about them in the news.
Another thing to note is that for the past several years, PSTA has been trying to work out a plan with the city of St. Pete to eventually vacate Williams Park, in order to open the park back up to general public use. Yes, the park is a public space, but some residents don’t want to visit because it currently attracts the homeless, loiterers, and those who want to stir up trouble in the city. It’s an unfortunate thing when it comes to bus terminals in general, and I do wish for the current situation to get better. As of May, 2015, PSTA intends to move out of Williams Park by February 1, 2016 and will gradually shift its downtown routes into a grid pattern, where bus transfers are done at street corners. It is unclear if the customer service center at the north end of the park will remain intact.
Following our brief layover at Williams Park, we boarded Central Ave Trolley bus #823 for a ride down to Pass-A-Grille, which serves as the trolley’s western terminus. The trolley was created several years ago to seamlessly connect tourists and residents between downtown St. Pete and St. Pete Beach. Upon the route’s initial success, PSTA decided to make the trolley line a permanent fixture to the system, replacing Route 35. The entire route is operated by yellow 35-foot Gillig Low Floor Trolley Replica buses, all of which are either 2008 or 2009 models that utilize diesel-electric hybrid technology. Unlike the hybrid “Smartbuses”, you won’t see a tank across the roof, as some of the systems are able to be contained within other sections of the bus. After all, having a hybrid tank on the roof of a replica trolley bus would pretty much destroy the charm of the bus right off the bat.
One thing that I noticed about the replica trolley buses that PSTA uses is that they use standard transit seats instead of the charming replica trolley benches that HART’s In-Towner trolley replica buses use. I think that the use of standard transit seating on board the trolley replicas destroys the charm of these buses and almost makes the buses completely pointless to even use. While I am unsure as to why PSTA made this move, I fully respect their decision.
In regards to the route itself, the Central Ave Trolley is the only PSTA bus route to utilize a fare zone system. If you board the bus going westbound, you pay your fare when you exit. If you board the bus going eastbound, you pay the fare as you enter. The segment between the St. Pete Pier and Sundial St. Pete (formerly known as BayWalk) is a fare free zone, meaning that you don’t pay a penny if you board and de-board in this area. The segment between Sundial and the Grand Central Terminal is considered a $1.00 fare zone, and the segment west of Grand Central is considered a #2.00 fare zone. So let’s say that you are like me, and you boarded the bus in Williams Park and de-boarded in Pass-A-Grille; you’ll pay the $2.00 fare as you exit the bus. While it is not odd to see transit systems use a fare zone system, as many agencies across the globe use them, the Central Ave Trolley appears to be the only transit route in Tampa Bay to use this type of fare structure.
Another characteristic of the trolley line is that in Pass-A-Grille is that trips alternate between 8th Ave and 1st Ave. Schedules are marked with an “X” beside specific trips, indicating that those trips run along 1st Ave. We happened to be on a trip that ran along 1st Ave.
Upon arrival to Pass-A-Grille, we paid our fare and headed across the street to the beach side eatery, where we grabbed some ice cream, something to drink, and took a few photos of the coast. The weather was just perfect for a nice swim, but none of us were planning on being in the water. While our time at the beach was short-lived, only about 30 minutes before we headed off on the trolley back towards downtown, being able to get a glimpse of the beach definitely allowed me to relax and also stir up some conversation with Zac and Jason.
Heading back towards downtown St. Pete, we decided to take the Central Ave Trolley to the Grand Central Terminal, which opened in 2002 and was originally called the Central Plaza Intermodal Terminal. What is unique about this bus terminal is that it was constructed as a circle, rather than a linear complex that many bus terminals across the globe are designed to be as. While the terminal is pretty sleek and modern, it does pose a huge downside…which is that buses have to go in reverse for a few moments in order to pull out of the bus bay. In fact, I saw several instances by which one bus was very close to another as it backed out of the space. On the other hand, the terminal was constructed with two entry and two exit points so that buses don’t have to go all the way around just to enter or exit the complex. There is also a customer service center at the complex, as there is also one at Williams Park, the Park St Terminal, and the Pinellas Park Transit Center (Shoppes at Park Place), which make it convenient for customers to purchase passes and ask questions to transit staff.
After spending some time at Grand Central, we decided to hop on the southbound/eastbound Route 79 to return to Williams Park. There I was able to take a few more photos of the buses laying over along the park, as well as discuss which routes we would conclude our adventure with. Since the cross-bay express routes stop service by 7pm, it was important for Jason and Zac to be able to head back into Tampa in time to be able to make their necessary connections at the Marion Transit Center. I don’t think they had any plans to stick around Pinellas through the evening rush.
Up to this point in our journey, I noticed how the bus schedules do not display the direction that the bus is traveling (i.e. Northbound, Southbound, etc.), but instead only read the final destination. I think that this is very confusing to a customer and that PSTA should look into adding this into their schedules, as many transit agencies I’ve used (including HART) already do so. Also up to this point, all three of us were periodically tweeting our activities on board the bus, and were trying to see if we could stop by the PSTA Facility. After a while, we were told by PSTA staff that we could stop by after 2:00pm. So at some point, we decided to head northward in that direction.
From Williams Park, we took Route 4 up to Publix by 4th St N and 38th Ave N for lunch. Route 4 is among PSTA’s busiest and most frequent routes during the weekdays and Saturdays; running every 15 minutes on weekdays and every 30 minutes on Saturdays. On Sundays, the route runs more sporadically, roughly every hour from the 7am hour through 5pm. Now since we were traveling on a weekday, we knew that we could catch Route 4 very easily compared to some of the other routes that only run 30 minutes during the weekday. After having our sub sandwich lunch, we continued northbound on Route 4 towards Gateway Mall, where we transferred to Route 59 going northbound/westbound. We then made a pit stop at the PSTA Facility off of 34th St N and Scherer Dr to see if we could meet with the wonderful staff to discuss our transit adventure.
Now unlike some transit agencies, there is actually a transfer platform on 34th St N, just outside of the PSTA Facility. This platform serves as a transfer point for Routes 11 (weekdays only), 52, 59, 97 (weekdays only), and 98 (weekdays only), and is equipped with several bus shelters and restrooms (both for customers and for operators). Beyond the transfer platform is the headquarters facility for PSTA, which broke ground in 2003 and opened in 2005. The two story administration/operations building, along with its various maintenance/garage facilities, allow all of PSTA’s operations and maintenance tasks to be done in one location, as opposed to having two facilities that dated back to the 1970s and 80s. The former St. Pete division facility was built when the Central Pinellas Transit Authority (or CPTA) and St. Pete’s municipal bus service merged in 1982, and the Clearwater division facility dated back to the formation of CPTA (if not earlier).
While at the PSTA Facility, we had a chance to sit down and talk about transit-related matters with Ashlie Handy – who serves as PSTA’s Media Liasion – and Alissa Kostyk – who serves as PSTA’s Social Media Coordinator. Among the topics discussed were creative ways that PSTA could reach out to the masses, including Millennials, through Social Media initiatives. I think that is always great when transit agencies are able to reach out to both current customers and prospective customers via Social Media, because they are able to grab a wider audience than they are able to through traditional methods such as TV and radio ads. Such ads nowadays are pretty costly to produce and it can be time consuming to gather the necessary resources needed for that ad. Social Media campaigns on the other hand don’t necessarily have to be expensive to be able to gain a wide reach.
To note, this isn’t my first time to the PSTA Facility. I had the opportunity back in June to visit for the Proterra electric bus demo, where I met Alissa and PSTA’s Director of Communications, Cynthia Raskin-Schmitt, for the first time. I’ve also attended a couple of public meetings and workshops at the facility since that demo was held, and hope to be able to attend many more as I begin to plan out how to use PSTA on a regular basis. I also attended yesterday’s BYD E-Bus demo at the facility, which I will discuss my experience in a future post.
As with all great things, the journey must eventually come to an end. After our meeting at the PSTA Facility, Zac and Jason decided to begin their journey back to Tampa via Routes 11 and 300X, and I certainly did not want them to miss their connections, as the evening rush was approaching. We managed to take a few more photos, including a few group photos, before we parted ways. Wanting to continue my leg of the adventure on board PSTA, I decided to take Route 52, which runs along a section of East Bay Dr, towards Clearwater.
While on board the East Bay Dr section of Route 52, the bus became filled to standing room only and stayed that way through the 49th St N segment of the route. It was not until we had passed through Largo that many of the passengers began to de-board. Two of the passengers on board seemed to be long time friends who had not seen each other in a long while. They conversed for about fifteen minutes before arriving at their stop. Before getting off, they exchanged phone numbers, hoping to be able to meet up again soon. It’s always a wonderful thing when you have friends on board your bus!
Upon arrival at Clearwater’s Park St Terminal, I snapped a few photos of the buses laying over there. It is to note that the Park St station was PSTA’s first transfer station, which was constructed in 1983. While the facility is largely antiquated, it is equipped with LED boards that display bus arrival information, restrooms (for both customers and operators), and a customer service window. There are currently long term plans for PSTA to replace the transfer center with a newer and modern facility, but I am not sure when that might happen, or where the new facility will be located.
For dinner that night, I decided to walk on over to Tony’s Pizzeria & Ristorante on Cleveland St. While Cleveland St serves as downtown Clearwater’s “Main Street” district so to speak – and is home to the lovely restored Capitol Theater – the area has suffered greatly from a general decline in tourist traffic ever since the fixed-span Memorial Causeway bridge was built, and all beach traffic was rerouted onto Chestnut and Court Streets to the south. Having a family member that previously owned and operated a business in a downtown area, I know how important it is to patronize locally owned businesses. After all, with my dinner consisting of a delicious baked Calzone, I know that I would be back to that particular restaurant for dinner in the future.
With the day nearly over, I headed back to the Park St Terminal to catch Route 61 to the Indian Rocks Shopping Center. This was the second to last trip of the evening with a relatively empty load. In fact, I was the only passenger on board from the time the bus passed East Bay Dr to the final destination. It’s not uncommon for later evening buses to not have many passengers on board, but it is also not a surprise to see tons of passengers boarding at certain points along the route due to service winding down for the evening. One thing to note about Route 61 is the amount of zig zagging that it does. This is mainly due to the some of the lower income neighborhoods the the route serves, including the segment between Ridge Rd and Vonn Rd. On my particular trip for some reason, the operator missed the turn onto 8th Ave SW to connect to Ridge Rd. It was not until the bus had reached Ulmerton Rd that the operator realized that he had missed his turn.
Upon arrival at the Indian Rocks Shopping Center, I transferred over to Route 74 for my ride home. The bus filled up rather quickly along the route and many passengers boarded and de-boarded at the Shoppes at Park Place. As the bus approached my stop, I began to feel a bit tired, but knew at the same time that I had to make my final 15 minute walk back to my apartment. I certainly wasn’t going to fall asleep right on the bus, especially it being one of the final trips of the evening. As I stepped off the bus and began my walk back home, I thought about how awesome of a day it was to be able to ride the bus around Pinellas County with Zac and Jason. I certainly hope to be able to do it all over again, but with different routes in mind. Hopefully that will be the case for our next bus adventure…whenever that may come.
So in conclusion, Episode 1 of this PSTA bus adventure wound up being a bit more than what I expected, considering that we were able to make a stop at the PSTA facility. While I wished we could have gone on a few more routes, I fully understood that we were on a limited schedule. I know that I will have many more opportunities to explore the various PSTA routes and destinations as time progresses. In fact, I am already planning out Episode 2 of this series as I finish this one up. The “South Florida Transitfan”, Carlos A. Arganda, told me recently that he is planning a trip to Pinellas County real soon, and he has expressed interest in wanting me to join him for an adventure on board both PSTA and HART. So be sure to look out for Episode 2 in the coming weeks!
You’ll notice that on many of my photos, I now have a copyright stamp. This is to lessen the risk of my photos being used without permission, although there will be photos that will be designated for the Public Domain.