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$3-a-gallon gas fills up buses with riders

But as PSTA ridership grows, critics say the authority needs to boost its service hours.

By CRISTINA SILVA, Times Staff Writer
Published November 14, 2007


Fed up with the growing cost of gasoline, more commuters are flirting with the idea of public transportation, according to a recent Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority survey.

More than 11.6-million riders, or an additional 260,000 people, rode PSTA buses in fiscal year 2006-07, compared to about 11.3-million in the previous year.

The increase in ridership comes at a time when the county transportation agency is struggling to expand bus routes while streamlining its budget in the face of state-mandated tax cuts.

"It's good news," said R.B. Johnson, chairman of the PSTA board. "People see the prices of gas and they look for alternatives, and some of those people stay. They decide it is more convenient to take their bus."

The PSTA also saw other gains:

- For the first time, PSTA operates three routes that each carry more than 1-million passengers a year. The agency's most popular routes are 18 and 52, which run between downtown Clearwater and downtown St. Petersburg, and Route 19, which goes between Tarpon Springs and St. Petersburg.

- PSTA's Bikes on Buses program grew by 38 percent, with more than 300,000 riders using the specialized, bus-mounted racks, making it the most used Bikes on Buses program in the state.

PSTA officials are crossing their fingers that the authority's recent good fortune could help sway voters to vote against plans to reduce property taxes in January's statewide referendum.

If voters approve the change, PSTA might have to terminate several routes or reduce service hours, which could alienate riders, said Bob Lasher, the authority's spokesman.

PSTA officials began to notice an increase in ridership in June, when the average cost of gas first topped $3 a gallon.

"We saw a really big jump," Lasher said. "And the neat part is, when prices went down, ridership stayed the same."

Students and commuters have also responded favorably to the Bikes on Buses program, which allows bicyclists to hang their bicycles on a rack on the front of the bus while they ride.

"We suddenly got into a problem where people were complaining the racks were full," Lasher said.

Despite the increase in ridership, critics argue that the PSTA could soon become obsolete if it doesn't expand its service hours.

"We have people who can't go out and get nighttime jobs," said Marshall Cook, a former PSTA board member. "Buses just don't run enough. People can't really get around on the weekend."

But an expansion in services would require funding, Johnson said, which government agencies are finding more difficult to come by these days.

"We want to get people who are going to the malls, going to a sports game, an event," he said. "That all takes money and you can only raise fares so much."

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

11.6-million Riders in 2006-2007

11.3-million Riders in 2005-2006

300,000 Riders using the Bikes on Bus program

260,000 Additional riders from previous fiscal year