Wednesday, June 12, 2019

St. Pete Beach Stymies PSTA ... For Now

At another standing room only St. Pete Beach City Commission meeting last night, residents and council members took a stand against more PSTA buses from the proposed Central Avenue BRT project on congested Gulf Boulevard. The Eye was there.

St. Pete Beach City Commission

Area residents spoke out against the plan, from taking lanes away from nearby South Pasadena, to those concerned about changing the character of the 10,000 resident beach community. Three speakers spoke out in favor of the plan, a couple from St. Petersburg, and a local foundation leader from St. Petersburg.

Mayor Al Johnson was concerned that "buses are out of place here".

Commissioner Ward Friszolowski was searching for "what can work... rather than no" to PSTA's plans, but the message from residents was "loud and clear" they wanted "no more buses on Gulf Boulevard."

Other commissioners were "respecting the residents", after receiving hundreds of emails against PSTA's BRT project, and "one or two" in support.

PSTA opened the meeting with about an hour of presentation, discussion, and answering questions from the commissioners.

Whit Blanton, Executive Director from Forward Pinellas (MPO), jumped in at one point. He stated the PSTA CABRT was the "must do, number one Forward Pinellas project" for the county, one of the top 5 projects in the Tampa Bay region, part of regional connectivity throughout the Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. He then implored the commissioners to see the "bigger picture, not just that of a beach town."

Whit Blanton, Forward Pinellas Executive Director

The commissioners, led by Melinda Pletcher, made it clear they wanted PSTA to consider terminating the CABRT at Gulf Boulevard and 75th Street, which they had requested previously.

PSTA responded that they had not yet considered this option, and Whit Blanton and PSTA expressed concern adding this extra transfer this option would kill the project.

But this is not quite true. As we reported on April 24, 2018
In addition, the action taken by the PSTA Board at a January 25, 2017 Board meeting reflect the Board approved a Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) alignment from downtown St. Petersburg to 75th Avenue and Gulf Boulevard on St. Pete Beach with an option to extend south to the Don Cesar Hotel pending local funding commitments.

PSTA staff told the PSTA Board at the January 25, 2017 Board Meeting that they had to approve the alignment that day to stay on schedule to get FY2019 federal funding. This chart of the full route was presented and PSTA staff admitted there was still a St. Pete Beach funding issue but indicated it would be resolved by the summer. What alignment did all the Board members think they were approving?
Route Presented to PSTA  Board 1/25/2017 
PSTA clearly was aware of the option to terminate the CABRT route at Gulf Boulevard and 75th Street more than a year ago, but appears to have ignored it.

PSTA has made some concessions to St. Pete Beach, including terminating the route at the beach parking lot rather than the Don Cesar, and using 40 foot buses rather than the originally proposed 60 foot articulating buses for at least 3 years.

After further discussion, the commissioners decided to craft a resolution to terminate the CABRT at Gulf Boulevard and 75th Street, thus avoiding more bus traffic on the busiest segment of Gulf Boulevard. The commissioners scheduled a vote for Thursday June 13 at 9:30AM.

A lot of details remain to be worked out.

Will PSTA and Forward Pinellas muscle over St. Pete Beach?

Will St. Pete Beach manage a local trolley or shuttle service? That was mentioned as a possibility, but clearly there are costs associated with operating a mini-transit service.

Will this dispute kill the CABRT project?

Clearly, PSTA's communication and outreach with St. Pete Beach has missed the mark. PSTA planned on SPB acceptance and contribution of $1.5 million to their CABRT plans. But PSTA never confirmed or negotiated an inter-local agreement to that effect. However, PSTA still counted SPB's funds as part fo the funding in their Federal Transit Authority grant application. This misstep clearly raised concerns across the SPB commissioners. As residents got wind of the project and overwhelmingly were against it, PSTA found themselves in a hole, and have yet to dig out.

The larger concern is PSTA's CABRT project remains questionable at best.

The proposed route from downtown St. Petersburg to SPB is already served by 6 PSTA bus routes along some of the segments. While a couple of the routes schedules will be reduced, none will be eliminated. This implies the ridership for the CABRT will largely cannibalize from the existing routes, while minimizing operating expense reductions. Any net increase in ridership along these routes is questionable, even with the estimated 20 minute reduction and more frequent service in the route. Even if PSTA's estimated 1500 new riders materializes, given the planned costs of $42 million, that works out to about $28,000 for each new rider. This project could fund a new car for each of those new riders. Would you do that if it were your money?

PSTA is nearing insolvency as it is, dipping into reserves to pay for current operational expenses. This project adds another $1 million per year in operational expenses, and as stated above, questionable increase in riders. It is unclear how PSTA will pay for this additional expense. PSTA has also recently committed to spend $1 million for driver safety barriers. Now it looks increasingly likely PSTA will be short $1.5 million from SPB. According to PSTA's filings to the FTA, their expenses increased by $7 million between 2016 and 2017 while their ridership and fare recovery decreased over the last several years, not withstanding a small increase in ridership the last few months.

This begs the question how will PSTA survive? They promised to reduce service after losing Greenlight Pinellas, but have yet to do so. That will clearly be on the table, even especially with the CABRT project. But the risk to PSTA is a risk to all of Pinellas taxpayers, as they will have to come begging for more money to stay solvent. This is notably the case with PSTA's FTA grant application, which they asked for $20 million from the FTA to fund the project. If the project is built with this money, and the CABRT fails live up to expectations, there is no going back, no matter how bad it may be. The spent FTA funds will have to be paid back if there are major changes or tear downs, with the taxpayers of Pinellas paying the bill. Which of course, will be nearly politically impossible. PSTA knows that.

It really looks like PSTA needs the CABRT project to postpone their financial crisis for a year or two, not so much for the value to the community. PSTA needs the project more than the residents of Pinellas.

St. Pete Beach may just be a speed bump along the way for PSTA, which may yet steamroll over St. Pete Beach objections.

But PSTA is headed for a train wreck regardless.

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