Wednesday, October 2, 2019

With 2 of 3 Municipalities Opposed to PSTA's Proposed BRT, Feds Must Reject Grant Request

PSTA, Pinellas County's transit agency, submitted a request in 2017 for a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant to fund their proposed Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit Project (CA BRT). PSTA has requested about $22 million of federal tax dollars to fund this proposed $45 million BRT.

But it is time for PSTA's federal grant request to be dead in the water and the FTA reject their grant.

Two of the three municipalities along the CA BRT route oppose the BRT project. S. Pasadena and St. Pete Beach passed formal Resolutions earlier this year opposing the CA BRT.

S Pasadena city commission
Resolution (click to enlarge)

We understand these Resolutions were sent to the FTA and to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). The Resolution passed by St. Pete Beach requests the FTA take no further action on PSTA's grant request.

Those Resolutions, in addition to Resolutions passed by condo associations and homeowner associations in S. Pasadena and St. Pete Beach, can be found here.

Such strong opposition to the CA BRT should sink PSTA from receiving any federal grant for this project.

PSTA enabled this mess because they failed to properly engage those who reside or have businesses in S. Pasadena and St. Pete Beach and properly engage those who will be impacted daily by the BRT. PSTA submitted their grant request to the FTA in September 2017 without ever holding one public meeting about the BRT project in S. Pasadena or St. Pete Beach.

St. Pete Beach city commission
Resolution (click to enlarge)
PSTA never properly informed the public, especially those most impacted, what this project was actually doing. The proposed CA BRT project uses road diets to remove valuable parking and valuable general lanes of vehicle traffic for bus only lanes. The proposed CA BRT project uses the road diets to force bus only lanes on 1st Avenue North and 1st Avenue South in St. Petersburg and road diets on Pasadena Avenue in S. Pasadena.

First Avenues North and South are local roads under the jurisdiction of St. Petersburg. But Pasadena Avenue is State Road 693 under the jurisdiction of FDOT.

FDOT requires proposed road diets on any State road to go through their "lane elimination" process. PSTA found out very late in February 2019 they must go through FDOT's lane elimination process regarding removing a general lane of traffic from SR 693 aka Pasadena Avenue.  

PSTA decided their proposed CA BRT route was from downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach in 2017. But they made such decision with only holding public meetings about the proposed BRT project in St. Petersburg, only one of the three municipalities along the route.

When PSTA finally held an "Open House" meeting on September 11, 2019 in S. Pasadena where they plan to put Pasadena Avenue on a road diet, the Eye was there. We posted interviews we captured here. We now have the Comment Forms submitted from that meeting. They are overwhelmingly (80%) in opposition to the CA BRT project, especially from any resident who lives in S. Pasadena.

And as we previously posted here, in January 2017 the PSTA Board only approved a route from downtown St. Petersburg to 75th Avenue in St. Pete Beach. The route to continue from 75th Avenue in St. Pete Beach down Gulf Blvd was only an option that required St. Pete Beach to both support and help fund the BRT.

PSTA misled the FTA when they submitted their federal transit grant request in 2017. Not only did PSTA include in their FTA grant request the optional route down Gulf Blvd in St. Pete Beach, PSTA falsely included St. Pete Beach as a funding partner.

None of that was ever true because St. Pete Beach never agreed to fund or support the project. A Times reporter did initially cover that story but then she disappeared never to be heard from again.

PSTA received a $500K grant from FDOT in December 2015 to study a BRT project that was originally estimated to cost $16.5 million. In 5 years, the cost of the CA BRT has ballooned to over $45 million.

PSTA's overall financial position is questionable. PSTA's Chief Financial Officer has presented many different financial numbers that vary from month to month with little to no explanation for the changes. PSTA's financial information presented at their Board meetings in the public domain is incoherent.

But we do know PSTA's farebox recovery has tanked to 14% and they are using their capital reserves just to keep operating. For years PSTA has ignored their own promises to address their declining financial position.

PSTA will have to use between $8 and 10 million of their Reserves for their "local" capital funding match to receive the FTA transit grant for the CA BRT. This $45 million boondoggle will only speed up PSTA's insolvency.

Below is a chart that PSTA's CFO Debbie Leous presented at the May 29, 2019 PSTA Board meeting.
From May 2019 PSTA Meeting
According to the Minutes of that May PSTA meeting, PSTA CFO Ms. Leous stated:
She [Leous] said by the end of FY 2021, there will be less than $1 million in available reserves for capital and operating costs. She [Leous] also reviewed what is currently being funded and what capital is not being funded. Ms. Leous noted that within five years, an estimated $18 million of local funding is needed with a total need of up to $26 million over ten years to maintain a state of good repair.
PSTA wants a bailout from the FTA and we doubt a bank would give PSTA a loan.

But what PSTA really wants is to put another transit tax hike on the 2020 or 2022 ballot. PSTA is using the CA BRT project as their ticket to seeking a new funding source for the financial mess they are currently creating.

The FTA transit grant process is competitive. We bet there are other transit projects in the FTA grant funding que with much less controversy, much more support than PSTA's CA BRT and led by transit agencies much more fiscally sound and responsible than PSTA.

The FTA should know PSTA's history of misusing federal funds. In 2014 PSTA was forced to return back to the feds over $300K of a federal transit security grant when they got caught misusing those funds on their Greenlight Pinellas rail tax campaign.

The fact that two of the three municipalities along the route oppose the CA BRT is cause for the FTA to reject PSTA's grant request.

Add in PSTA's use of misleading information about the project, PSTA's lack of honesty about the project, PSTA's lack of proper public engagement about the project and PSTA's vulnerable financial position.

And any federal grant for PSTA's CA BRT should be dead in the water!

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