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Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Pinellas program offers free bus rides

— City workers and St. Petersburg College students will soon have a new incentive not to commute by car: free bus rides.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is launching a new program that would turn the ID badges of the city’s 2,800 workers and the college’s 33,000 students into a ticket to ride.

Known as Universal Pass or UPASS, the program is intended to boost ridership on PSTA buses. Workers and students merely would have to show their ID badge when boarding buses, shuttles and trolleys. In exchange, the city and the college would pay PSTA a set amount each year based on a break-even cost for the estimated number of passengers.

PSTA also has approached other local colleges, including University of South Florida St. Petersburg and Eckerd College, and officials say the program also could be extended to local employers. The plan is based on projections that new riders will fill up spare seats on existing routes without the need for additional buses.

“PSTA generates more revenue and we get more riders,” PSTA CEO Brad Miller said. “They’re filling up existing seats on the bus so it’s not costing PSTA any money to carry those riders to their destinations.”

The agency still is in talks with SPC to finalize an agreement that would cover the college’s nine locations beginning in the fall. On Wednesday, its governing board approved an initial $28,000 contract with St. Petersburg that would cover the 2015 fiscal year. The cost would rise each year by about 2.5, or 3 percent, Miller said.

The city’s program could begin as soon as August. Council Member Wengay Newton, who also serves on PSTA’s board, said free rides particularly would benefit students who cannot afford a car.

“A lot of those young people don’t own cars because of the high insurance and the car payments and the responsibilities,” Newton said. “You can’t buy ramen noodles if you’re paying parking tickets.”

UPASS programs already are common in many other communities with transit systems.

Miller said they encourage ridership particularly among people who don’t know how much bus fares cost or who fret about having the right change.

Although rides are subsidized heavily, passenger fares make up roughly 23 percent of PSTA’s revenue, bringing in about $14 million per year.

The UPASS contracts include a clause allowing PSTA to renegotiate costs if extra riders lead to routes becoming over-crowded.

Evan Mory, St. Petersburg director of transportation and parking management, said UPASS makes sense for the city, which pays about $25,000 a year toward purchasing bus passes for 54 workers who participate in a city program that encourages employees to leave their cars at home. The workers each pay $20 per month toward the cost.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Mory said. “It works out to be a very good deal for the city.”

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