PINELLAS PARK – Pinellas County’s bus agency is teaming up with Uber and a local cab company in a pilot program to fill some of the gaps in public transportation.
The “Direct Connect” partnership launched Monday by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is designed to create flexibility that will make public transportation more accessible.
“This is the future,” PSTA CEO Brad Miller said at a news conference outside the agency’s Pinellas Park transit station.
Christine Mitchell, Uber’s local general manager, said the program can help to solve the “first mile, last mile” problem – bridging the sometimes considerable distances between bus stops and customers’ destinations.
PSTA already has been working with United Taxi in areas with little or no bus service. United’s principal owner Nick Cambas said the taxi company will have a smart phone application, just as Uber does, for people to summon a ride. And unlike Uber, the cabs accept cash or credit card payments. “Not everyone has a smart phone” to pay for rides, which is how Uber operates, Cambas said.
During the six-month pilot, PSTA will pay half of the cab or Uber fare up to $3 for passengers traveling to a PSTA bus stop or home from one after work or an appointment. The trial service will be available in the mid-county Pinellas Park area and the East Lake area in northeast Pinellas County, Miller said.
Pinellas Park is one of PSTA’s busiest areas, while in East Lake bus service was eliminated in September because of low ridership. About 75 people a day used those buses, Miller said. PSTA now subsidizes cab service in the area, but riders must call 24 hours in advance and only about five people a day do so, he said.
The on-call Direct Connect program could reconnect half of the bus riders to bus stops in East Lake and Tarpon Springs, he said.
Miller said PSTA buses cover major routes such as U.S. 19 thoroughly, but with the county’s sprawling population there are gaps where riders have to walk long distances to get on a bus.
PSTA board member Bill Jonson said the agency also is trying to provide for people with limited resources who need access to social services, medical appointments, drug stores and grocery stores.
The program brings together competing transportation services that at times have been at odds with each other. Cab companies, which are more highly regulated and required to provide more services, have complained that the new-tech ride-sharing companies that use independent drivers in their personal vehicles have an unfair advantage.
In St. Petersburg, the city council has asked the city attorney to rewrite the transportation ordinance to provide for ride-sharing services and to level out the requirements for the two businesses.
In Hillsborough County, the Public Transportation Commission is in a court battle with Uber and Lyft, which it contends should follow the same regulations as cab companies.
Among the concerns are background checks on drivers and liability insurance.
Mitchell said Uber has a $1 million policy that applies when a driver is called into service and until the passenger is dropped off – four times as much as cab companies typically provide. However, some government officials have argued the drivers should be forced to carry certain insurance levels even when they have no passengers. The state Legislature currently is considering measures that would require some level of insurance.