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New HART bus routes bring questions, headaches to riders

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Marco Sandusky of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority helps Delia Noles, 53, try to plan her new bus route Sunday at the Marion Transit Center in downtown Tampa. Noles is one of about 43,000 riders who have to adjust to new stops, routes and times as part of HART's new bus system that launched Sunday. [Caitlin Johnston | Times]

TAMPA — Sunday was a day of questions and long waits as riders tried to figure out the new bus system that launched this weekend in Hillsborough County.

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority flipped to an entirely new network at 4 a.m. Sunday, as part of MissionMax — a complete overhaul of the agency's sprawling system. Sunday was a test run of sorts, as weekend ridership is lower than the 43,000 people who typically ride the bus on a weekday.

But for those people who depend on the bus to go to work on the weekend, Sunday brought uncertainty as they tried to make sense of new stops, routes and times.

TAMPA BAY TIMES REPORT: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why. (Feb. 16, 2017)

Downtown at the Marion Transit Center, bus riders peppered HART employees with questions. At Tampa International Airport, they stood in groups waiting for an additional bus to take them from the new stop at the rental car facility to the terminal where many of them work. And in Town 'N County, riders kept refreshing their One Bus Away app, hoping it would provide some guidance as to when the next bus might arrive.

"I understand they need to make changes, but I don't think they understand how these changes affect everyone," said Linda Gilmore, 63, as she rode the Route 30 from downtown Tampa to the airport. "It's better for some people, but it's worse for others. And everyone has questions."

HART's goal with the new system is to make riding the bus easier for a majority of people. The bus agency said 80 percent of riders should have a better commute — whether it's fewer transfers, shorter waits between buses or more direct routes. But for the other 20 percent of riders, life won't improve. And for about 4,500 of them, their commutes will be longer or more complicated.

The map on the left shows HART's existing coverage, while the map on the right shows the coverage that went into effect on Sunday

Delia Noles takes the bus from her home near downtown Tampa to Pierce Middle School on Hesperides St. She used to take two routes, but the new changes mean she'll either have to walk 5 blocks — a distance she's not comfortable with, especially in the dark or with the Florida heat — or add an additional route.

In order to make it to school by 8:15 a.m., the special education teacher said she plans to leave her house at 6 a.m. Monday.

"MissionMax isn't maximizing anything," Noles told Marco Sandusky, Director of Government and Community Relations for HART. "I know change is always hard, but this seems a little uncalled for."

Sandusky and about 80 other staff members were at different stops and transfer centers Sunday to help people navigate the transition. Sandusky used Google Maps and HART's One Bus Away app to show Noles other alternative buses she could take.

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)

The system redesign cut bus route miles by about 30 percent — primarily on routes along the edges of the county, like in South County or Town 'N Country. But doing so allowed HART to improve the core routes by extending hours later at night and adding weekend service. Previously, only 19 of the 43 routes ran on Sundays. That numbered increased to 25 this weekend.

"I do have a bus running on Sunday now, so I'm definitely happy about that," said James Hudson, 47, who works at the airport. "But not all of these new routes make sense. Somebody didn't think this section through."

Hudson was referring to a transfer point at Tampa International Airport. Instead of dropping people at the terminal, routes like the 60LX have to first stop at a transfer point near economy parking. Bus riders — mostly employees who work at the airport — then have to wait for another bus that will take them to the terminal.

On Sunday, that extra step took an additional 20 minutes. That extra transfer caused Vanessa Ramsey, 30, to be late for her shift.

"I already left my house almost two hours before work today," said Ramsey, who left at 10:30 a.m. to make her 12:15 p.m. shift. "I shouldn't have to ride the bus for two hours to get to work."

If she had a car, she could make the 8-mile drive in about 12 minutes. Instead, she has to take three buses, waiting for 30 minutes or more at some stops for the next bus to come.

Hudson, who caught the new 60LX with Ramsey at Hanley Road and Waters Avenue, made sure to budget nearly three hours for his trip into work Sunday.

"I've been catching the bus for years, so anytime there's a change like this, anytime there's uncertainty, I plan for it," Hudson said. "I've been burned too many times."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.