By Anne Lindberg
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) will receive a $500,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration for a pilot program to provide "real time" transportation to disabled customers so they can get to work, the doctor, and other necessary places.
"This is a great day for Pinellas County, but an even greater day for the residents of Pinellas County" who will use the service, U.S. Rep. David Jolly said in announcing the award.
Jolly, a Republican who represents Florida's 13th Congressional District, said the grant was an example of bipartisan collaboration.
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, a Democrat, agreed, saying, "This is an example of how, with partners, you can do more."
The grant will pay for the majority of a pilot program that partners the PSTA with Lyft, United Taxi, and Care Ride. The PSTA will provide the additional $125,000 to make up the $625,000 program cost.
Currently, the PSTA has about 12,500 total para-transit passengers who take more than 1,000 rides a day. Under the current system, those passengers -- who cannot ride traditional buses -- must call PSTA at least 24 hours in advance for an appointment with the DART program. A DART vehicle then comes to their home and takes them to work, the doctor, or other destination.
Under the pilot program, para-transit passengers would not have to give 24 hours' notice, just calling PSTA when they need a ride. PSTA will call Lyft, United Taxi, or Care Ride depending on the needs of the passenger. That vehicle would immediately come pick up the rider and take them to their destination.
"It will really help these riders," said Brad Miller, PSTA CEO.
Patti Johnson, a Pinellas Park council member who sits on the PSTA board, agreed the new program would help disabled riders. It's important, Johnson said, to make sure those who are transportation disadvantaged can find ways to get to work, medical appointments and other places when needed.
Miller said the program will likely begin late this year or early next year.
PSTA already partners with Uber, another ridesharing company, in its Direct Connect and TD Late Shift programs.
Direct Connect uses Uber and United Taxi as a link between peoples' homes in areas underserved by bus routes and bus stops. Under the program, PSTA pays half the fare, up to $3, for a taxi or Uber vehicle to pick someone up and drop them at a designated bus stop (and take them home from the stop).
TD Late Shift is a pilot program funded by a $300,000 grant from the commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged (TD). It is aimed at helping low-income, unemployed residents overcome transportation barriers to employment. Riders can request up to 23 free rides per month between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., hours when bus service is unavailable. Rides must be to a place of employment or residence.
Miller said programs such as TD Late Shift, Direct Connect and the new program for disabled riders have given the PSTA a national reputation for being "one of the most innovative transportation systems in the country."