TAMPA — Elsie Strong, 84, uses a wheelchair and public buses to go to her monthly cancer treatments.
For the past decade, the Town 'N Country resident has relied on Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority buses for everything from doctor's appointments to errands to eating lunch at Village Inn.
Starting Sunday, her life will get harder.
HART is overhauling its entire network, altering the routes Strong takes every day. Stops will move. Times will change. Some routes will disappear altogether as Hillsborough's bus agency streamlines its sprawling bus system to adjust to hard financial realities.
"I heard this was coming, but I had no idea it would be this bad," Strong said after a Tampa Bay Times reporter explained the changes to the 84-year-old as she waited for her next bus. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
TAMPA BAY TIMES REPORT: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why. (Feb. 16, 2017)
The changes start Sunday. HART officials say service will improve for most of its 43,000 or so customers. They say the new system will reduce wait times, add much-needed weekend service and extend hours earlier in the morning and later at night.
But 1-in-5 riders like Strong won't see any help from the changes. And HART officials say commutes will be worse for 10 percent of riders.
That means about 4,500 of Hillsborough's most vulnerable residents — those who depend on the bus because they have no other way to get to work, the doctor or the grocery story — will be left with longer, more complicated commutes.
Some will end up stranded with no bus service at all.
The Route 30, for example, will no longer go through Strong's neighborhood. She spent the past week sorting through maps and timetables, trying to rearrange her commute to the cancer clinic. She needs to find stops close enough for her to reach in her wheelchair.
"I'm just afraid that I'm not going to be able to get to the doctors I need to go," said the 84-year-old, who has no family in Florida to help her. "This is very difficult, very difficult for me."
HART started this process more than a year ago, when it became clear the agency could no longer run the same bus routes with what little money it had.
Hillsborough's transit agency lags behind its peers by almost every measure, including frequency, hours of operation and number of buses on the road, according to a Times analysis published earlier this year.
The agency's $72 million 2017 operating budget remains one of the lowest in the country for a region its size. Jacksonville spent $89 million on its bus system that year. Budgets in similar-sized Detroit and Milwaukee dwarf HART's at $122 million and $160 million, respectively.
The map on the left shows HART's existing coverage, while the map on the right shows the coverage that will go into effect on Sunday
Facing rising costs and limited dollars, the cash-strapped agency had to try something to improve service. That's the goal of HART's restructured routes, branded "MissionMax."
But the agency can't afford to improve service for everyone. So after evaluating ridership numbers, cost per mile and other factors, the transit agency cut 13 routes, eliminating a third of the old network. The agency added a few new routes in their place, but the total miles of bus routes is shrinking by 30 percent.
Hit heaviest? Those on the county's outskirts who were already stuck with anemic service that barely got them where they needed to go.
TAMPA BAY TIMES TRANSIT COVERAGE:
After six years of growth, Pinellas and Hillsborough see sudden drop in bus ridership (Jan. 23, 2017)
HART bus service will improve for most riders, but some Hillsborough areas will lose routes altogether (June 19, 2017)
Even transit leaders don't rely on their own buses (July 20, 2017)
A Times reporter spent a week at bus stops, talking with people about the new system. Like Strong, many knew changes were coming, but said they had no idea how it would affect them.
South Hillsborough will go from three routes to just one for an area covering about 300 square miles. Town 'N County, a largely Hispanic area, will lose three key routes. In Temple Terrace, the elimination of the 57 and the 41 has sparked outrage.
"(Route 57) is a minimal schedule that's highly needed for people in that area," Temple Terrace resident Karen Michalski said at a public hearing last month. "How are we now going to get to those places now? We're not going to."
HART CEO Katharine Eagan said she hates to see the agency cut service for any riders, but it was a matter of survival.
Hillsborough County has tried repeatedly to increase transit funding, and failed each time. In 2010, voters shot down a referendum to raise the sales tax to pay for transportation improvements. In 2016, county commissioners refused to put a similar initiative on the ballot.
Earlier this year, HART chair Les Miller proposed raising the millage rate for the first time since 2012. His idea went nowhere with the governing board.
So the threadbare budget remained the same as the agency slid further into the red. It projected a $6.2 million deficit going into this fiscal year. Instead, the agency says the new routes will save it $5.8 million a year.
"If I keep providing service at this same level, I'm going to disappear," Eagan said. "Or I can make these changes now, and maybe I can be back in those neighborhoods in a year or two."
A small crowd gathered at the bus shelter at Westfield Brandon Mall last month, buzzing with questions and frustration.
Nearly a dozen riders waited for their next bus. All but one told a Times reporter they didn't know significant changes were coming to the buses they take every day.
"They're just dropping a bomb on us," said Jamie Fernandez, 38. "This is not right."
HART staff spent the summer hosting community meetings, handing out new schedules and posting signs about the changes. Still, in a county of 1.2 million that's roughly the size of Rhode Island, it's hard to reach everyone.
"For me, it's not really that bad," Andrew Malone, 13, said. "For other people, it's basically life threatening. They can lose their jobs over these changes."
Malone's mom drives him to school in the morning, but he relies on the 53 LX to get home. The 20-mile express route, which runs south from the mall along U.S. 301 down to Sun City Center, was cut for low ridership.
"It may not be a lot of people (who take it), but that's the only bus that goes out there," said 19-year-old Kemanie Patten. "That's my only form of transportation. What do you want me to do, walk?"
South County: Existing coverage versus the coverage that will go into effect on Sunday
Ultimately, trips in South County accounted for less than 1 percent of HART's total ridership, or about 424 people a day. Money had to go to the routes that served the greatest amount of people, Eagan said, even if that meant cutting others that some people depend on.
"We're mass transit, we're not personal transit," Eagan said. "We've had to make some difficult choices."
County Commissioner Stacy White, who represents that area, expressed frustration in August over the cuts, saying South County "got hosed."
"It's terrible for residents in unincorporated Hillsborough," he told fellow HART board members.
But White also doesn't think the agency needs more money. He opposed Miller's suggestion to raise the millage rate, and has been a vocal opponent of any sales tax increase.
Cutting the 53LX and 43LX leaves South Hillsborough County with a single route. And while other parts of the county will benefit from expanded service, South County's lone route, the 31, won't change: weekdays only, with riders waiting 60 to 90 minutes between buses.
Ten miles to the north near the University of South Florida, Perry Myers is trying to figure out how he'll get to his job at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital once his bus is gone.
Myers, 59, has taken the Route 57 to the VA for four years. The Temple Terrace-based bus doesn't run on Sundays, so instead he walked two miles to catch the Route 6. The 35-minute trek was manageable when it was only one day a week. Now, if he wants to keep his job, Myers will have to walk it every day. Without Route 57, the 6 will be his only option.
"Their bus system does not get to people on the outskirts," he said. "That's been a problem for some time. And now it's only getting worse."
Temple Terrace: Existing coverage versus the coverage that will go into effect on Sunday
But Eagan said the cuts are a matter of simple math. It cost HART more than $800,000 to run the 57, and Eagan said the ridership was dwindling.
It's a problem transit agencies face nationwide: bus ridership is declining, bringing revenue down with it. Yet experts say that cuts in service can lead to an additional drop in ridership.
Eagan pointed out that, for most of her customers, taking the bus will get easier. But she can't afford to help everyone. As a publicly-funded agency, she said, HART has a responsibility to evaluate how it spends its dollars as fewer people ride the bus.
"When we look at the lower ridership on some of these sections, the math does not work," Eagan said. "We can spend half a million to run a bus that's not used, or we can be mindful of the budget and invest in the future."
Guadalupe Alonso, 48, sat at the bus stop on a Thursday, thinking about her own future. She worries how she'll travel the 9 miles from Town 'N Country to her job at International Mall without Route 30.
She is on her feet for most of the day, cleaning the food court and other parts of the mall for eight hours, sometimes longer. It takes her 12 minutes to walk from her home on Sheldon Road to the Northwest Transfer Center on W Waters Avenue. Then she catches a bus to N Westshore Boulevard — a 45-minute ride. Then she has to walk a mile to International Plaza.
She doesn't mind, though, because she knows she'll get to work on time. Now, she's not so sure.
"I'm worried," she said. "(If the new route) leaves me far away, and I get into work late … that brings more consequences."
Town 'N Country: Existing coverage versus the coverage that will go into effect on Sunday
But that section of the Route 30 doesn't fit HART's new model: pull back from low ridership areas and focus on quick connections to business hubs like the airport, downtown and USF. Eagan hopes to boost ridership and revenue along those routes. But that means passing over the kinds of stops that Alonso and others depend on.
"I don't want anyone to lose a job," Eagan said. "I don't want anyone to miss an appointment. That's the stuff that keeps me awake at night.
"But if we don't find a way to change, we'll be broke. We won't have a transit system."
Editor's Note: This story was updated Friday with new data from the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.
Times staff writers Melissa Gomez and Lauren Flannery contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.