ST. PETERSBURG — The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has unveiled the first look at next year's budget, and the agency says it does not project any cuts to bus service through 2021.
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority will not be so fortunate, with a budget for the coming year that will cut the number of bus routes from 41 to 34.
In contrast, the PSTA's operating budget and its budget for capital expenses such as new buses and terminals are balanced through 2021, said Deborah Leous, the agency's chief financial officer.
"That's an improvement over what we expected," she said.
The total budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year, unveiled at last week's PSTA board meeting, is about $96 million, with $73 million in operating costs and $23 million in capital costs.
CEO Brad Miller said PSTA is making good use of its funding. But he said the agency is still providing a limited service and doesn't have the funds to fully serve Pinellas residents.
"Overall, it's a stable budget but still not enough of an investment for a population of our size," he said.
HART has a similar budget to PSTA's, but Miller said the Hills-borough agency lacks reserve funding, which Pinellas has as a cushion. Both organizations struggle to provide routes with high frequency and expansive services on shoestring budgets.
Between the two of them, transit funding in Tampa Bay is the worst for an area of its size in the country. The combined budget for the two systems, $141 million, is on par with much smaller cities like Buffalo, N.Y., which has 1.5 million fewer people.
For the 2017 fiscal year, PSTA had to dip into its reserves to cover roughly $160,000 in costs. In total, it has about $25 million available in reserves.
The agency anticipates losing $2 million if voters approve expanding Florida's homestead property exemption by another $25,000 in 2018. If the measure passes, local governments will lose up to $637 million in revenue, according to the Florida Association of Counties.
"People just see an option for lower property taxes and say, 'Of course I want that,' " Miller said. "They don't understand how this is going to impact public services like ours."
He said the agency will try to maximize its funding over the next few years by joining with cities and the county on projects and seeking as much grant money as possible.
He said he also is optimistic about help from the Legislature, which just approved a line item in its own budget for a transit project in Pinellas County for the first time. State Sen. Jack Latvala backed a $1 million study for a dedicated transit lane on the Clearwater Memorial Causeway. That's a step in the right direction, Miller said.
In the meantime, he said PSTA will evaluate its lowest-performing routes, like the neighborhood circuit in Pinellas Park, and see if their funding could be better used to increase the frequency of more popular routes.
Portions of next fiscal year's budget will be approved and revised over the next few months. There will be at least two meetings for public comment before the budget is approved and implemented in October.