The record bus ridership numbers the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is posting this summer make a pretty good argument that expanded bus service under the Greenlight Pinellas plan is a good idea.
Arguments from anti-Greenlight forces that empty buses are the norm, and that the one-cent sales tax increase under Greenlight will fund an under-used bus system, are undercut by the numbers.
In June, the PSTA reported nearly 1.2 million boardings by riders, a 4.4 percent increase over last June’s numbers and a record number for any June in the county’s history. That follows a record-breaking year in 2013, when ridership reached an annual high of 14.5 million boardings.
Hillsborough’s bus system is also experiencing record ridership this summer. And last week, a group of leaders representing the county and the cities in Hillsborough unveiled an ambitious proposal to overhaul the transit network across the entire county.
The growing reliance on mass transit is a telling sign for Chris Steinocher, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce president and Greenlight supporter who is working to educate voters ahead of the November election.
The common claim that most buses are empty is simply not true, he says. The big picture, as told in the overall ridership numbers, is what matters.
The PSTA’s busiest route, from Tarpon Springs to Gulfport, logged a 20 percent ridership increase over the past five years, averaging 6,000 riders a day.
And new routes have been added to the beaches to ferry workers to their jobs because parking is scarce at the hotels, restaurants and shops where they work.
If approved in November, Greenlight would replace the property tax that generates about $30 million a year for PSTA with a one-cent sales tax increase generating an estimated $130 million a year. That would spread the cost to every resident and visitor to Pinellas, rather than putting the tax burden on property owners alone.
With the added revenue, PSTA would expand the bus service by 65 percent, offering far more choices and greater convenience. There would be more places to catch a bus, shorter wait times and covered shelters to keep the harsh Florida sun at bay. Weekend service would be expanded, and express buses from St. Petersburg, Clearwater and north Pinellas would run to Tampa International Airport, Westshore and downtown Tampa.
Within 10 years, a commuter rail line would be built connecting St. Petersburg with Clearwater, a route that will spur economic development and could eventually lead to a regional rail system.
But it’s the bus system that would carry the biggest passenger load under the Greenlight plan.
Without the added funding under the sales tax increase, the PSTA says, cuts to the bus service will be necessary to balance the budget. That would send transit spending in the wrong direction at a critical time for the entire region.
The Hillsborough plan would greatly expand bus service and add selected rail lines, but it also would build and expand roads, sidewalks, bike paths and trails, even developing a path along the Tampa Bypass Canal that runs through much of eastern Hillsborough.
Like Greenlight in Pinellas, the Hillsborough plan will likely include a vote on a proposed one-cent increase in the sales tax in Hillsborough, perhaps in 2016.
Greenlight, Steinocher says, can be the first seed planted in a regional transportation system, one that would boost the area’s economy and quality of life.
The growing bus ridership numbers provide evidence that residents are ready for such a plan.