Thursday, April 26, 2018

PSTA Must Fix Funding Gap & Misleading Info for Central Ave BRT

Tampa, Fl
From: Eye On Tampa Bay
Posted by: Sharon Calvert

We posted here recently about PSTA's proposed Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project (CA BRT). It will use road diets and huge 60 foot buses on Gulf Blvd and take out parking spaces in St. Petersburg along its route from downtown St. Petersburg to the Don Cesar.


There are issues with this project because PSTA submitted misleading financial information in their Small Starts grant application submitted to the FTA in September 2017. PSTA included St. Pete Beach as a funding partner for the CA BRT project.
PSTA financial info submitted to FTA included St. Pete Beach
as a funding partner
PSTA included this map of the BRT's route alignment from downtown St. Petersburg to the Don Cesar in St. Pete Beach in their grant application to FTA. There is no indication in this map of different options depending on funding commitments.
Central Ave BRT alignment submitted to FTA September 2017
St. Pete Beach has never taken any action to fund or support the project.

In addition, the action taken by the PSTA Board at a January 25, 2017 Board meeting reflect the Board approved a Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) alignment from downtown St. Petersburg to 75th Avenue and Gulf Boulevard on St. Pete Beach with an option to extend south to the Don Cesar Hotel pending local funding commitments. 

PSTA staff told the PSTA Board at the January 25, 2017 Board Meeting that they had to approve the alignment that day to stay on schedule to get FY2019 federal funding. This chart of the full route was presented and PSTA staff admitted there was still a St. Pete Beach funding issue but indicated it would be resolved by the summer. What alignment did all the Board members think they were approving?
Route Presented to PSTA  Board 1/25/2017
The funding issue has never been resolved and PSTA continued to move this project forward as if it had been and with the route terminating at the Don Cesar.

Who reviewed the grant application packet before it was submitted to the FTA?

As recently as April 12, 2018,  PSTA took their CA BRT presentation over to a Hillsborough MPO committee meeting. The presentation shows the route terminating at the Don Cesar and includes this chart - falsely stating St. Pete Beach is a funding partner.
PSTA presentation 4/12/2018 to Hillsborough MPO committee
Local media has reported about this project but never about the funding gap until TBBJ reported last week St. Pete Beach mayor says city won't pitch in $1.5 million for proposed bus project. The article is behind TBBJ's subscription firewall but includes this:
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is trying to identify creative funding sources to bridge a $1.5 million gap in local funding for the proposed Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit route connecting downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach. 
“To be honest, there’s no way in hell I’m going to give them $1.5 million,” said St. Pete Beach Mayor Al Johnson. "As much as I'd like to have it, it's just not worth it to us." 
The BRT terminus at St. Pete Beach would be at the Don CeSar, but the route would not continue into the community.
How did this happen?

After Greenlight Pinellas failed miserably 68-32% in November 2014, PSTA decided to focus on incremental improvements rather than another grand transit scheme like Greenlight. PSTA sought and received $500K from FDOT for the Central Ave BRT design work in December 2015.

The project started as a 10-14 mile project at an estimate cost of about $16.5 million. By the time PSTA submitted their grant application in September 2017, the capital cost had more than doubled to over $41 million (in 2019 dollars), the route was 22 miles and the project was taking out 13 miles of general purpose lanes of traffic.

PSTA sought and received a local funding commitment from the City of St. Petersburg who voted to financially support the project.

PSTA also pursued a funding commitment from St. Pete Beach. PSTA initially went to an October 11, 2016 St. Pete Beach City Council Workshop to present an overview of the BRT project to the council members.

PSTA Executive Committee meeting was held the next day on October 12, 2016 where the funding issue with St Pete Beach was discussed.
At the meeting last week, the St. Pete Beach City Commission indicated that because of the millions in spending the city faces to repair and upgrade its leaking sewer system, there is no money left for the proposed rapid transit route. 
"It's unfortunate they are not being more cooperative," said PSTA Board Chair Darden Rice. 
"There is no free lunch," said PSTA board member and Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, warning her board not to start the rapid transit service without St. Pete Beach paying its share.
PSTA went back to an October 25, 2016 St. Pete Beach commission meeting with their formal request. They asked for $1.5 million from St. Pete Beach for capital dollars to implement the CA BRT and also wanted St. Pete Beach to provide more dollars to operate and maintain the service.

The end result of that meeting was St. Pete Beach council stated they had other higher priorities to address and they took no action. Since then, St. Pete Beach has never voted to fund the project or vote to support the project in any way.

Since the January 25, 2017 PSTA Board meeting, we could find no mention by PSTA of the funding issue with St. Pete Beach as if it disappeared or got resolved.

Long's warning to not start the service without St. Pete Beach paying its share must have gone out the window when the schedule to pursue the federal money was more important than resolving the funding issue.

PSTA has never been back to St. Pete Beach since October 2016.

From a March 13, 2018 St. Pete Beach council meeting (go to about 2:21 in the video) it appears that PSTA had not continued any negotiations with St. Pete Beach about funding. It seems St. Pete Beach thought the project was still preliminary, that the route was not finalized and were unaware that PSTA had submitted a federal grant application that included St. Pete Beach funding the route to the Don Cesar with 60 foot buses on Gulf Blvd.

There is a flaw in the FTA transit grant process. There should be a requirement that all grant applications must provide evidence of the actions taken that all funding partners and stakeholders have approved their financial commitment of the project by each governing body. FDOT should require that too.

From a conversation with FDOT, it is PSTA's responsibility to provide accurate information to the FTA regarding all local funding commitments.

PSTA must fix the funding gap asap and update their grant application because the FTA has already rated this project. No federal grant should be awarded based on erroneous information.

PSTA's Board must also get some questions answered. Why did PSTA submit misleading financial information in their FTA grant application last September? Why did PSTA include the route alignment to the Don Cesar in their FTA grant application when the St. Pete Beach funding issue had not been resolved? Was there a breakdown in oversight and communication within the entire process?

There is no excuse for PSTA submitting misleading financial information to the FTA and continuing to perpetuate the deceptive information ever since.

There is already reason for distrust as PSTA was caught misusing federal transit security funds for Greenlight Pinellas ads in 2014 and had to hand $345K back to the Feds.
When the pursuit of federal transit funding is more important than providing accurate and honest information in the process, messes like this get created.

That should be alarming to all.
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