Even though Hurricane Irma brought a lot of uncertainty to Florida’s transit agencies this past couple of weeks, there has been some very good news to help balance things out.
On September 15, 2017, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced the 51 recipients of the Low or No Emission (Low-No) Vehicle Program grant. The grant, totaling $55 million dollars across 39 states, is aimed at helping transit agencies across the nation to obtain, improve, and expand bus fleets that emit little to no carbon emissions – including battery electric buses.
If you’ve read my previous posts about the battery electric bus journey at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), then you’ll be very delighted to hear that PSTA was among five agencies here in Florida to be awarded some of the FTA Low-No grant money! The $1 million awarded to PSTA will be used to help cement the agency’s commitment to purchase 2 battery electric buses per year, starting in FY 2020, by being able to have the funds available to purchase additional battery electric bus charging stations and buses.
As some of you already know, PSTA will be getting its first 2 battery electric buses towards the end of the year or early 2018 to be used on a planned shuttle route along Downtown St. Pete’s Beach Drive. PSTA leadership has shown their commitment to expanding the battery electric bus purchases beyond the initial pilot, and being granted the FTA money will allow the agency to fulfill that commitment.
The other four FL transit agencies that earned Low-No grant funds from the FTA include Tallahassee’s StarMetro – which already posses a small fleet of battery electric buses, Broward County Transit, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, and Gainesville’s Regional Transit System.
Please join me in congratulating all five of these wonderful transit agencies, as well as all of the recipients of the FTA grant!
At the February 22, 2017 board meeting, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board voted to purchase two 35-foot battery electric transit buses, plus a charging station from BYD Motors at a cost not to exceed $2,200,000. Nine members voted for the purchase while five voted against. One or two members were not present at the meeting.
The vote to purchase the two buses caps off what has been nearly two years of analysis and discussion within the agency, and between elected and community leaders, and citizens. The move also quells what could have been a very heated debate between environmental advocates who championed the agency to take part in the pilot project and Tea Party conservatives who were insistent that PSTA had broken a prior obligation to revert to purchasing only straight diesel transit bus purchases following the failed Greenlight Pinellas initiative.
The idea of PSTA taking part in an electric bus pilot project surfaced sometime in 2014, but gained momentum in 2015. During the course of mid 2015; four manufacturers were brought in to showcase their vehicles and convey their benefits to PSTA leaders, elected officials, and riders. First was Proterra Inc., followed by BYD, Complete Coach Works, and New Flyer.
In 2016, further analysis and research was done to examine costs and benefits to PSTA, as well as decide whether the investment was well worth it. During this time, there was a lot of misconceptions going around that the initial costs of the purchase would far outweigh the long term benefits of the electric buses, as well as misconceptions that straight diesel buses were a much economical choice over the battery electric buses and even the existing hybrid buses that the agency was purchasing.
In late 2016, the issue was brought up as to how to pay for the charging station, as PSTA only had resources available for the buses themselves. Pinellas County leaders ultimately voted to allocate a portion of settlement money from the 2010 BP oil spill incident in the Gulf of Mexico towards the purchase of the charging station. The City of St. Petersburg has also expressed chipping in funds for the pilot project and ongoing operation of the buses, and Duke Energy has expressed its desire to assist with the project as well.
Concerns regarding the cost of the electric buses and whether it was worth it for the agency to purchase them stirred the five board members who ultimately voted against the move. County Commissioner Brian Scott was specifically concerned about a recent report that came out from the Tampa Bay Times regarding the dire financial limitations on both PSTA and neighboring Hillsborough Area Regional Transit. Tea Party conservative Barbara Haselden, who served as head of No Tax For Tracks Pinellas, voiced criticism towards the board for not following through on what she sees as taxpayer wishes to create an economically sound and efficient transit system by reverting back to only purchasing straight diesel transit buses.
Once the buses are in operation, it is very likely that they will be used as part of an enhanced circulator route in Downtown St. Petersburg. There is currently a study underway to re-evaluate downtown circulator service. The buses will also complement three 35-foot Gillig Low Floor Hybrid Drive BRT style transit buses that are in place for the agency’s 2018 bus fleet order. While no official timeline has been set for the production and delivery of the BYD buses, it is likely that they will arrive sometime in late 2018. The Gillig buses will likely be numbered 18101 through 18103, while the BYD buses will likely be assigned unit numbers 18110 and 18111.
On Sunday, October 2, 2016; the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) enacted a major revamp of key bus routes with the goal of streamlining service and improving efficiency and reliability throughout the system. These changes include the introduction of four new bus routes and substantial changes to 12 others – including the Jolley Trolley. In this post; I will go into detail regarding each of the changes for southern and a portion of central Pinellas, as well as share some images of the new services that PSTA now operates.
Streamlining South & Central County Service
PSTA has long been known for operating notoriously long bus routes by which it can take as much as two to three hours to traverse Pinellas County. While longer routes tend to provide a convenient, one-seat option for some; the lengthier the bus route, the more chances that reliability issues will arise. In the case of many central Pinellas routes; buses were running well behind schedule due to traffic conditions and/or construction on key corridors – like Ulmerton Rd. When buses fall behind on one segment of the route, the entire route becomes bogged down in delays, and that in-turn inconveniences the customer.
To help remedy this problem, PSTA decided to modify routes so that they can operate more smoothly. These measures included splitting some routes into two or three segments so that better service can be provided and maintained on the busiest portions while maintaining basic (hourly or less frequent) service in areas that don’t see high ridership demand. Other changes included combining segments of two routes that would otherwise be too short to operate on their own (while not being notoriously long either), and moving/eliminating a portion of an existing route and allow another route or service to easily compensate for any service lost.
Route 4 maintains its frequent 15-minute weekday service during the day – with 30-minute frequency after 6:30pm and all day on Saturdays. Hourly service is maintained on Sundays and Holidays. However, the segment north of Gateway Mall now travels up MLK St N to Roosevelt Blvd, 28th St N, 118th Ave N, and 34th St N – taking over the path of Route 59 to the 34th St Transfer Center (PSTA Facility). The northern (116th Ave N/Goodwill Industries) loops previously served by Route 4, have been shifted over to a new Route 9, which I will describe in a few moments. In addition to the above; the Coquina Key Loop is now a timepoint. This means that buses serving the loop will display “via Coquina” on the head signs.
While I was very concerned about the routing that Route 4 would ultimately take, I have to say that I am very satisfied with how the final routing turned out. Not only will I be able to use the same bus stops that I’ve been using previously to board and de-board Route 59, but I will also enjoy a one-seat ride into the heart of Downtown St. Petersburg via 4th St N. The frequency of the 4 during the weekdays and on Saturdays will also allow me to be more flexible with my work commute schedule, and also make quick runs to the store – particularly Trader Joe’s on 4th St N – without having to drive or wait up to an hour for a connecting bus.
As I mentioned earlier, the 116th Ave N/Goodwill Industries loops that were previously served by Route 4 are now served by the new Route 9. The 9 operates every 30 minutes on weekdays with hourly service on the weekends (though for some reason, the buses do run a bit more oddly on Sundays). Buses serving the loops will do so in the same clockwise fashion that Route 4 previously did on Sundays and Holidays – departing Gateway Mall and serving 116th Ave N first, then the Goodwill Industries facility on Gandy Blvd, before returning to Gateway Mall. From Gateway Mall southward, the 9 takes over the southernmost segment of Route 59 to Downtown St. Pete.
In the early stages of planning and public input, the 9 was to only operate hourly seven days a week This did not pan out well with a lot of customers – as many businesses lie along the MLK St N corridor and they (the customers) felt that it was a disservice to them if bus service went down from 20 to 30 minutes to an hour on weekdays. PSTA eventually revised the proposal to include 30-minute weekday service while maintaining hourly weekend service.
Route 74 through central Pinellas has been split into three separate routes. The 74 is maintained between Seminole City Center (formerly Seminole Mall) and Gateway Mall. The 20 to 30-minute weekday frequency and hourly weekend service are retained. In addition, the 102nd Ave N/16th St N/94th Ave N loop has become permanent.
Splitting the 74 allows the Park Blvd portion to retain its frequent weekday service while opening the door to more frequent Saturday service and better Sunday service down the road should funding allow for it.
The segment south of Gateway Mall is now Route 16, which operates each day with one bus every hour. While I prefer that this route operate with 30 to 45-minute weekday service, it is probably not possible to do so at the moment, given PSTA’s limited resources. I do hope that frequency on the weekdays will be increased later on so that customers aren’t too inconvenienced.
The segment west of Seminole City Center is now Route 65, which also takes over the southernmost segment of Route 66 – the latter I will describe in a later post. Route 65 operates each day on an hourly schedule between Seminole City Center and the Park St Terminal in Downtown Clearwater. Buses traveling on the 65 will not enter the Indian Rocks Shopping Center at the northwest corner of Ulmerton Rd and Indian Rocks Rd. Street-side transfers can be made to Routes 59 and 61 from the bus stops along Indian Rocks Rd and Ulmerton Rd. Route 61 buses will still enter the shopping center’s parking lot.
Route 19 was first established in 1990 as a one-seat option for customers traveling the entire Pinellas County portion of US Hwy 19. While the service has been very popular and ridership very strong, increased traffic congestion along the highway over the years has created longer delays – especially in northern Pinellas. PSTA decided that splitting the 19 into two routes would be best to maintain as much existing service as possible while improving the overall reliability and efficiency of the system.
Route 19 was split at the Largo Commons Walmart – which the bus platform on the property’s east end serves as the Largo Transit Center. The segment north of the transfer center retains the Route 19 designation, while the segment south of there became the new Route 34 (34 was chosen due to the southern portion of the route being on 34th St N). Route 19’s overall frequency was reduced to every 35 minutes Monday through Saturday to maintain basic service along the northern US 19 corridor while still being frequent enough to get customers to major employment centers such as Westfield Countryside. Also, buses no longer enter the mall’s parking lots – but remain on Countryside Dr and SR 580. The Westfield Countryside timepoint has thus shifted to the eastbound-only platform on SR 580 at Summerdale Dr.
Route 34 begins its journey at the Largo Transit Center and then makes a southbound turnaround on US 19 at Whitney Rd. The route then follows the path of Route 19 down the central US 19 corridor to the Pinellas Park Transit Center (Shoppes at Park Place). From there; the route continues down the 34th St N corridor of US 19 to Grand Central Station and the Skyway Marina District. 20 to 30-minute weekday frequency is maintained throughout the day, with 30-minute evening and Saturday frequency, and hourly Sunday service. Select trips to Eckerd College are retained as well.
Route 18 was originally poised to see major revisions in an effort to streamline service. These plans called for the segment servicing Heritage Apartments to be discontinued, as well as the removal of service into Largo Mall’s parking lots. However; fierce resistance from customers forced PSTA to reconsider the removal of these segments until a longer-term solution can be crafted. In the meantime; Route 18 continues to operate as it did previously – but with some scheduling changes to help keep buses moving on time.
In the future, perhaps during the course of 2017 or 2018, I see PSTA revisiting Route 18 for the removal of service from Heritage Apartments. This will especially be the case if the agency’s Direct Connect service expands further to include more stops. Currently, the revised draft calls for the addition of five stops in strategically located areas of Pinellas, where getting to a bus stop is difficult.
In my next post; I will cover changes for Routes 52, 59, 60, 61, and 67 – focusing on the improvement of these routes through Largo (Routes 52 and 59), Clearwater (Routes 60 and 61), and Oldsmar (Route 67). I will then publish a third post covering Routes 62, 66, 76, 78, the North County Connector routes, and the Jolley Trolley – focusing on the reorganization of these routes through Northern Pinellas.
If you have any questions or concerns regarding these changes – I recommend that you contact PSTA directly at 727-540-1900, or by visiting PSTA.net. Please keep in mind that during the course of this week – Real Time Bus Information through the Clever Devices Interface (ridepsta.net) and OneBusAway may incrementally be unavailable due to updates that are needed to accommodate these route changes.
No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus routes were indeed showing up on HART’s OBA interface, rather than HART’s own routes (though HART Routes 1, 2, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 16, 30, 31, 33, 34, 36, 37, 39, 41, 45, 46, 57, 96, and 400-MetroRapid were all showing as they normally would, as well as some HART express routes). If you were using the mobile app for OBA, the situation was a lot less confusing, as both HART and PSTA routes showed up on the interface.
Mobile app snapshot of PSTA Route 11
Both PSTA and HART routes appear on the mobile app.
Now, while I can only guess that today’s occurrence was a test run of sorts, HART and PSTA have been working together for the past several months to bring OBA functionality over to Pinellas County, as part of a broader regional connectivity plan that will soon usher in the first stages of a regional smart card-based fare structure. So therefore, I also see today’s occurrence to be the next stage in preparations for the official launch of OBA in Pinellas, which is currently slated to happen sometime later this year.
For those wondering about PSTA’s current “Real Time” bus tracking system that is powered through Clever Devices, that system is here to stay. Instead, OBA will become an additional convenience for PSTA customers – especially those who utilize smartphones. Those of us who have utilized the Clever Devices interface know that if you’re using a smartphone, the only effective avenue to track buses in real time is the mobile “text-only” site.
With the preparations continuing for PSTA to join the OBA realm – which already includes the New York City MTA, Sound Transit, and Atlanta’s MARTA, in addition to HART – expect to see more great things from both agencies as we head towards the summer months. My only question now is, will the official launch of OBA (Pinellas) happen sooner than some of us think it will? Only time will tell on that I guess…
Yesterday, I decided to take a quick drive down to Williams Park to see how the park and the surrounding streets look since the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) ended its bus transfer hub operations there. While the Customer Service building remains open to customers needing to seek information about the PSTA system, you will already notice a few differences between when PSTA was there, versus now. Let’s take a quick look at the scene via a video that I put together.
The changes described in the original blog post below are now in effect. Please consult individual route schedules for new times and timepoints, and keep in mind which stop to get off at if you are transferring to another route.
As of 8:45am this morning; PSTA has updated Real Time to reflect the new grid pattern.
Any questions or concerns regarding the upcoming changes should be directed to PSTA. Contact information is listed at the bottom of the original post.
Original Post – 1/29/16
As I mentioned in my blog post yesterday, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) is preparing to discontinue Williams Park in Downtown St. Petersburg as a transit hub. This change will allow the City of St. Petersburg to beautify the park so that it will be able to become the urban commons that it was designed to be. The changes will also allow PSTA to create a grid system throughout the downtown area where customers can transfer between routes via street-side bus stops. While there will be many challenges ahead for PSTA as they implement these changes, the agency is hoping for a smooth transition for everyone.
During the weekend of January 30/31, 2016, the bus shelters around Williams Park will bewere completely removed, although each of the existing routes will continue to operate as they do now. PSTA staff will be at the park during the next few weeks (beginning January 31 through February 17) to educate customers on where they can catch their bus once the grid system is implemented. Staff members can be identified via the yellow vests that they will be wearing. The service changes will take effect on Sunday, February 14, 2016 (Valentines Day) and will affect Routes 4, 5, 7, 14, 15, 18, 20, 23, 32, 38, 52, 59, 74, 79, 97, and the Central Ave Trolley.
To illustrate how each of the affected routes will operate once the grid system is implemented, including the locations of bus stops, PSTA has uploaded a copy of its service change brochure on PSTA.net. I’m sure that hard copies will also behave been distributed throughout the system as well, and are available at all customer service centers. At some point in the beginning ofAs of February 10th, new route schedules will behave been distributed throughout the system and uploaded to PSTA.net. Please be sure to check in with PSTA for further updates on the upcoming changes. As soon as additional information becomes available, I will post them to my blog and across my Social Media channels.
Any questions or concerns regarding the upcoming changes should be directed to PSTA. Please do not post comments to my blog or social media channels if you have questions about the service changes. I do not work for PSTA, nor do I have the most current information about the changes.
You may contact PSTA by calling (727) 540-1900, by visiting PSTA.net, by visiting one of four customer service centers located throughout the county, or by asking one of the on-site staff members at Williams Park during the period of January 31 through February 17.
The debate has sprung up at least a couple of times in the past five years here in Tampa Bay, but now it seems that the debate on whether to contract out public transit agencies to a private operator is gaining some steam. Right smack dab in the middle of this debate are at least three public transit agencies in Central Florida; Manatee County Area Transit (MCAT), Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT), and most recently…the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority (also known as LYNX).
The argument to privatize transit
Many fiscal conservatives, including those who associate themselves with the Tea Party, have argued that publicly run transit agencies are financially bloated and inefficient. They chastise local governments for not having their “ducks in a row” when it comes to operating reliable transit services without breaking the bank, and for being far too dependent on state and federal funding sources – namely the latter. In turn, they also argue that private companies such as MV Transportation and TransDev can run these agencies with greater efficiency and financial solvency than the municipalities that currently operate and fund them. It almost sounds like logical sense in the minds of fiscal conservatives…right? Why have governments operate inefficient transit when private enterprise can manage transit like a business?
With the economic downturn of 2008/09, many transit agencies were forced to slash services as federal and state funding for transit declined. Many agencies have turned to contracting out at least some of their services to the private sector in an effort to save money.
What privatized transit generally looks like
There are two major forms of privatization that pertain to public transit: 1) Contract out transit services to the private operator, but allow the public entity to plan out and finance those services, 2) Allow the private operator to handle both operations and planning.
In the first scenario – seen in parts of the US; the private operator would be contracted to provide their workforce to operate the transit routes and would be given the necessary resources (route assignments, schedules, etc.) for the contracted employees to do their jobs. Meanwhile, the transit agency would retain responsibility for planning and financing services and their board of directors and executive staff would likely be retained to oversee day-to-day operations.
In the second scenario – seen in many parts of Europe and in Australia; the private entity does virtually all the work…from operating the routes, to paying the employees, to planning out and financing services. The role of the government in the scenario is reduced and the public element of the transit agency may be limited to just the board of directors and a few key executive members. In this case, the transit agencies operate similar to what the airlines would, bringing forth a business-like competition to the service area.
The pros and cons to privatization
While I’m not going to spend a ton of time going through each of the pros and cons of privatizing transit in detail, it is important to know what some of them are.
Generally less burden on public entities and governments.
Competitive environment – like the airlines (in the case of the second scenario described above).
Greater flexibility of routes and services.
Greater economic flexibility.
Generally lower employee wages.
Lower overall cost of doing business.
Focus is on making profits, not providing excellent service – Massive cuts to the agency’s services and routes could be made at the expense of meeting profit margins.
Less accountability – difficult to hold the private operator accountable for its actions.
Greater risk of late buses and trains, as well as “no shows”.
Less public input on service changes, except public hearings that are required to be held by law.
Lower customer satisfaction and employee morale.
Government subsidies needed to shore up unproductive services and meet government regulations – such as Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act here in the US.
Problems with privatized transit in Fairfield, CA
Fairfield and Suisun Transit (FAST) in Fairfield, CA has experienced problems since it was outsourced to MV Transportation. Buses have been consistently late – or not shown up at all, customer complaints have increased, and employee morale has decreased. Despite these troubles, FAST decided to renew its contract with MV in 2014. As recent as May, 2015, dismay has been expressed over how FAST transit workers are compensated. These problems definitely bring to the forefront that contracting out transit services to the private sector isn’t the best way to go about saving money and rebuilding public trust.
Discussions about privatizing MCAT and/or SCAT have arisen in recent years, but were never pursued further. Additionally, a 2013 survey showed that almost 60% of customers were against even merging the two agencies. However, things took an interesting turn when private transit operator TransDev jumped into the foray with an unsolicited proposal to merge the two entities and simultaneously making the united entity a privatized one. While Manatee County seems to be on board, Sarasota County needs more time to examine the repercussions should the proposal be approved. Some have pointed that MCAT and SCAT would do better as one body – but not under private hands, and many customers have voiced time and time again that they don’t want their transit agencies to be run by a private company – fearing many of the same repercussions that are already being felt in Fairfield, CA with FAST.
The situation with LYNX
Some in Orlando, including Congressman John Mica, have expressed dismay at LYNX’s lack of ability to create a better transit network – including efficient connections to SunRail. These parties believe that contracting out LYNX services to the private sector would force the agency to make better decisions in order to better serve customers. There is even talk of legislation that would basically impose strict guidelines on LYNX and force the agency to bid out its system to private transit operators like TransDev and MV. I’m not sure how far the legislation would go, or if it would only apply to LYNX, or stretch out to be a statewide mandate – eventually opening the door for agencies like Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) to have to do the same thing. One thing is clear though, the SunRail advocacy group – The SunRail Riders – have expressed heavy dismay towards the proposal, citing that it will turn LYNX into an entity that beefs up SunRail connections at the expense of routes that are dearly needed by riders in other areas of Osceola, Orange, and Seminole Counties.
Why privatizing MCAT/SCAT could lead to the privatization of PSTA
If the privatization plan goes through with MCAT and SCAT, there is no doubt in my mind that Tea Party activists, like Barbara Haselden of Pinellas County, will see even more reason to lobby county and state officials into contracting out the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) out to the private sector. These activists have long argued that PSTA is mismanaged and cannot think outside the box. They also believe that privatization is the only way to “protect the taxpayers from further waste”. PSTA has already contracted out paratransit services, only to see disastrous results (although issues supposedly have been addressed and resolved), and the agency is now having to look at possibly contracting out its express routes due to budgetary constraints, and the failure of the Greenlight Pinellas referendum.
Why privatizing LYNX could lead to the privatization of SunRail
Tea Party activists have also argued that both LYNX and SunRail are grossly inefficient and that SunRail has no long term funding source, or long term management plan by the various municipalities that would have to begin operating it when the state relinquishes control in 2021. If LYNX becomes privatized, there is no doubt in my mind that these activists will call on the state to also bid out SunRail to a private operator. Why? Because I’m very sure that their argument will be “if you privatize LYNX, then you also have to privatize SunRail”, and I’m willing to bet that this is exactly what winds up happening. In addition, privatizing LYNX could also open the door for – as I mentioned, PSTA to also be bidded out to the private sector. It’s like a game of dominoes…once one agency is privatized, others will start looking into privatization as well. And then fiscal conservatives, along with the Tea Party, will advocate our elected officials to force privatization upon our transit agencies.
All three agencies could stand to lose a lot
If MCAT, SCAT, and LYNX are all privatized, you can likely expect that customer satisfaction will plummet, customer complaints will rise, buses will be late – or not even show up, needed routes will be cut in order to shore up ones that the private operator sees as “profitable”, employee morale will decline, and the list goes on and on. In short, expect far worse service from these agencies if they are privatized. It has already happened to FAST and several other agencies throughout the US. We simply cannot allow this to happen here in Florida.
Earlier this month, I blogged about the different factors that impacted the Greenlight Pinellas voter referendum. Well, a recent poll has shown that regardless of whether or not light rail was in the equation, many voters simply did not want to be taxed…not even by another penny. That goes into the final point that I made in my last post, which was the overall state of the economy and taxation.
Despite the hard referendum losses in Pinellas, Polk, and Alachua counties last week, Hillsborough County is moving ahead with efforts to place a sales tax referendum onto the 2016 ballot. Seeing an email this morning from transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay reinforces why we need better public transportation in the Tampa Bay Area, and why the status quo is no longer acceptable for residents, businesses, and visitors alike.