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Public transportation has new chief, new challenges

He envisions a total improvement of rider services.

By CRISTINA SILVA, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007


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As a transportation official in New York and then Portland, he dealt with trains and commuters, big issues in the transit world.

But when Timothy Garling, the recently named executive director of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, starts his new post in November, the challenges he will face in Pinellas County will be no less daunting.

Public transportation is nowhere near where it should be, PSTA board members argue, and Garling must make improvements in the face of a shrinking budget. For his troubles, he will earn $152,000 a year. The St. Petersburg Times asked Garling questions about what changes he intends to make and how he plans to get locals on the county's buses.

What do you think needs to be done to improve the transportation system in Pinellas County?

Our vision should be to develop the "total transit system." From my point of view, the total transit system includes: frequent, reliable service during all times of the day, every day of the week; clear customer information; easy access to stops; comfortable places to wait for transit and modern well-maintained vehicles.

How do you specifically plan on implementing these changes? What first steps need to be taken?

Transit improvements take careful planning and stakeholder review. The PSTA has a five year Transit Development Plan that will reflect these issues, define priorities for investment and detail the plans for implementation. I firmly believe in creating momentum for public transit investment. Bus Rapid Transit is absolutely a key component of our future, but we also have to address service frequency and operating speeds across the board. The implementation of these types of improvements should be a high priority.

Most recently, the county has discussed investing in a Bus Rapid Transit system that would appeal to choice riders, or commuters who could drive their vehicles, but choose not to. What do you think of this plan?

BRT is proven to work in areas with similar characteristics to Pinellas County such as Kansas City. The current alignment for BRT follows PSTA's most productive corridors. I do expect to review this proposed alignment with staff and the board when I arrive in November.

Considering the PSTA's shrinking budget and the public's recent demand for more responsible government spending here in Florida, how can the agency realistically move forward with implementing new technologies in these tight fiscal times?

The PSTA has a responsibility to be good stewards of public funding. We first have to look at our own operation and look for cost savings through working smarter. In order to achieve continuous service improvements we also need to partner with other agencies and develop long-term funding sources.

Why should taxpayers and the county continue to invest in the PSTA when it appears residents have a limited interest in using the system? Board members claim ridership is low and residents have complained the system is slow. At this point, how much can really be done to change this?

From what I have learned about the PSTA, ridership has been growing as a direct result of service improvements. The important thing is to try to continue to implement service improvements and make the system more attractive to choice riders.

What can be done to better connect the northern part of the county with the south, as well as to improve connections to other counties, such as Hillsborough and Pasco?

These types of issues require a commitment to regional planning and regional partnerships. The PSTA needs to be an active participant and leader in these efforts. This means working with agencies in neighboring counties and the newly formed TBARTA Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Agency.

What do you think can be done to improve ridership?

In the short term, we have to find ways to improve service frequency, provide later evening service, improve travel speeds and enhance customer amenities. In the long term, we have to work together as a community to balance needs to guide where and when to invest in transit improvements that will lead to ridership growth.

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8846.

[Last modified September 30, 2007, 01:16:54]


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