Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sending a Bus to do a Minivan's Job

By Cathy Salustri

Almost two weeks before Christmas a woman ran a red light and sheared off the front end of my Volkswagen. This, as you may imagine, was rather annoying. Even more annoying was her insurance company, AIG, who seems to simply delight in finding new and unusual ways to screw with Americans not only en masse but on a personal basis. To make a long story short, I had a rental car for three weeks while AIG and Bert Smith Collision debated over how to fix my car.

During that time I fantasized about getting rid of a car altogether and relying on my scooter, bicycle, and public transportation. I thought about the environmental bonuses, yes, but to be honest, I thought a lot about the money I would save. Despite my elaborate fantasies and plans the monies saved, I am back in my car with no plans to hang up the keys. Why? Because our county is simply not well-planned enough to make practical, regular use of buses. A person can't blame PSTA for that.

Especially not when there's so much else wrong with the local transit authority. PSTA recently raised their rates, and, while the buses - in my experience - run on time and are clean and comfortable, I can't help but wonder if anyone is using their head over there, because sending out a half-million dollar "smart bus" to haul seven people around seems to make the term Smart Bus somewhat ironic.

Now, we can't deny that a certain portion of the population depends on PSTA for transportation to work, school, and the market, so shutting down the service won't work. Besides, I applaud well-run public transit. Please note the use of the phrase "well-run." Also note that I do not, at any point, use that phrase in conjunction with PSTA. Why not? Because it appears that they're stuck in doing things the same way whether it works or not, and they're doing it on our tax dollar.

In Grand Cayman, they use minivans for public transportation. Now, granted, these vehicles don't have the stadium seating and color-coordinated interiors that PSTA can boast, but they're smaller, and, ostensibly, they work for the small island.

Why aren't we doing this here? Sure, some routes warrant big buses- the Suncoast Beach Trolley operates at capacity during the height of season, and the buses that chug along US19 seem to have their share of people, too. But I see plenty of buses that, while they provide crucial transportation to a number of people every day, don't need to be the size of a semi to get the job done. PSTA could use minivans for lower-capacity times and buses for peak periods, or simply add to the number of minivans on the road during peak times? How much could PSTA reduce its fuel and oil consumption and emissions by scaling down to an eight passenger van or shorter bus?

If they're not concerned about their carbon footprint (and it certainly seems they at the very least, pay attention, according to their press releases about their reduced emissions), how about the money? Let's peek at the numbers: almost 73% of the agency's $55 million budget comes from public funds like property taxes or state and federal grants. That's your money. Over half of it - $29.65 million - comes from Pinellas taxpayers. With less than 500,000 households in the county, that means each household contributes an average of over $70 every year to PSTA. That's more than the schools get, and that's not counting the money PSTA gets from grants or passengers. You know, the people actually using the service.

I'm not suggesting we cut off the funding, mainly because I know it will never happen. I would like to see people demand that PSTA use the public's money more wisely. PSTA has over 205 buses in service, and at half a million bucks a bus, that's over $100-million in buses. Really, PSTA? Is there no better way to do this?

Most of you, like me, probably like the idea of public transportation. I mean, as a state we've voted for high-speed rail more than once. We want to reduce our carbon footprint, and I know I'm not the only one who's ever had a car totaled and fantasized about taking the insurance money and putting it in the bank instead of buying, insuring and fueling another car.

But, half a million dollar buses when minivans would probably do? PSTA, you're making it harder and harder to get on that bus.
Contact Cathy Salustri at or visit Cathy Salustri's Hard Candy Facebook page.

1 comment:

  1. Let me ask: Have you spent any time whatsoever working with, for or even speaking to representatives from PSTA or any transit agency? (Seriously, just because one shops at store doesn’t qualify one to run the store and the same holds true for transit and government.)

    PSTA averages more than 21 people per revenue hour/bus, which can’t be carried out with vans. Nor could PSTA have carried more than 13 million riders last year – as it did – with minivans. Though I’m sure, as you say, minivans do work wonderfully on Grand Cayman, which has approximately 1/20th the population of Pinellas County. (I noticed that you conveniently neglected to mention that fact.)

    Buses on PSTA routes are sized to handle rush hour crowds. That means that for most routes 35 foot buses or larger are needed. For routes with weaker demand, PSTA does run 30 foot buses. Although the fleet size is 205, PSTA operates fewer than 155 buses during rush hours, the rest serve as back –ups in case of breakdowns or are undergoing routine maintenance.

    The buses are purchased by the federal government and PSTA has to run them for 12 years before they can be replaced. Diesel-electric hybrids cost about $500,000, but over the life of the bus, are cheaper to maintain and get a 56-65% improvement in fuel efficiency depending upon which routes they are running. (Not to mention the HUGE reductions in emissions.) PSTA has 24 of those, the rest of the buses cost approximately $320,000 per bus, so you math regarding the fleet cost is inaccurate… just as it is for the property taxes: My home is valued above the median home price in Pinellas County and I only paid $48 to PSTA this year, plus I bought in 2006, so most properties have lower tax rates thanks to state’s ridiculous property tax codes… but I digress.

    The following may be the most ignorant of your statements: “PSTA could use minivans for lower-capacity times and buses for peak periods, or simply add to the number of minivans on the road during peak times? How much could PSTA reduce its fuel and oil consumption and emissions by scaling down to an eight passenger van or shorter bus?”

    If PSTA were to operate minivans during low ridership periods of the day, it would require the agency to purchase an entirely new, additional fleet of vehicles – minivans – to deploy during mid day hours instead of the buses. Of course, that would also require a massive increase in the number of drivers needed to get the minivans from the shop to their routes throughout the county while the larger buses are driven back to the shop. If PSTA were to rely on current staff, riders would be stuck without service for hours during the changeovers, which would take so long that no sooner would the minivans be put in service than they would have to head back to the shop so the larger buses could be deployed in time for rush hour. Hmmm, that would also, contrary to your claim, lead to a huge increase in oil use and emissions as well as the need for a significant increase in mechanics needed to maintain the new fleet of minivans. So... your idea would result in massive increases in fleet, staff, and operations costs as well as increaed fuel use and pollution. Good idea!

    Here are a few other pertinent points to your article:

    Based on other communities with similar sized populations, PSTA is a very undersized agency, which is why relying on transit in Pinellas is so difficult.

    Transit agencies don’t make money anywhere in the country. They are all supported by taxes. The national average for the percentage of operating costs paid by fares is 18-24%. PSTA’s farebox recovery is currently around 22%.

    And lastly: The budget for Pinellas County Schools is more than $1.3 billion according to the St. Petersburg Times (Aug. 1, 2010). How, exactly is that more than PSTA’s $54 million budget?