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Hillsborough bus riders adjust to new realities, good and bad

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(From right) Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority transit dispatcher Don Barrett explains the new bus routes to Whon Ho Lee, 59, of Tampa, at the HART University Area Transit Center on Monday, October 9, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. HART flipped to an entirely new network at 4 a.m. Sunday, October 8, 2017, as part of MissionMax -- a complete overhaul of the agency's sprawling system. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]

TAMPA — Bus riders in Hillsborough County are trying to figure out the new bus system that launched this weekend.

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, changing stops, times and routes on which people have come to depend.

Sunday was a test run of sorts. But by Monday morning, the 43,000 people who typically ride the bus on weekdays were trying to make sense of new route maps and transfer points.

The past two days have been full of questions and uncertainty as riders tried to determine how they'll use the new system to get to where ever they need to go.

"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 on Sunday from downtown to Tampa International Airport. "It's better for some people, but it's worse for others. And everyone has questions."

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

HART's goal with the new system is to make riding the bus easier for most of its customers. 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 didn't get better. And for about 4,500 of them, their trips became longer and more complicated.

At stations throughout the county, riders clutched green and white maps and peppered HART employees with questions. About 90 staffers were stationed throughout the county on Sunday and Monday to help people figure out their new routes.

Those on the outskirts of the county, such as Sun City Center, Town 'N Country or North Tampa, were hit hardest. Several routes there were cut completely.

Jerome Valmond, 48, relies on the 47LX to take him from his home in Wimauma to his job in downtown Tampa. But at 5 a.m. Monday, that was no longer an option. The route was one of 13 that HART cut. Instead of taking one bus directly, he used three separate routes to reach the same destination.

"So many people took that bus every morning, early in the morning, to get to work," Valmond said. "Now they've cut it. I have no other option. It's going to force me to buy a car."

Gloria Brunson, 64, said Monday that she was thankful for the new system. Normally, she had to leave her house near the University of South Florida more than two hours before her doctors' appointments at Tampa General Hospital to make it on time. She is being treated for stomach cancer.

Under the new routes, she has to walk a couple extra blocks to her first stop, but after that it's a quicker route with one less transfer.

"I'm so happy I didn't have to wait here and catch another bus," Brunson said while waiting at the Marion Transfer Center. "I went there this morning and came right back."

Across the county, riders spent the past two days figuring out whether they were among those benefiting from the improved service promised by HART officials, or whether they were stuck with longer, more complicated trips. Or worse, if their routes were dropped all together.

 

 

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

Take Rosario Cabrera. After finishing an early shift at the Macy's at Westshore Plaza around 9 a.m. Sunday, the 55-year-old found herself stuck at a transfer station, waiting for a bus she feared would never arrive.

Thirty minutes ticked by, then an hour. She felt increasingly nervous being by herself, even though it was during the day. It was close to noon by the time she gave up waiting for the 60LX — a new route meant to replace the 30 she used to take daily. She called her son to pick her up.

"I knew that the routes were changing, but I didn't think it would take so long," she said.

The changes in the routes, while meant to streamline most trips, hurt customers like Cabrera. Her commute used to take 30 minutes on one bus. Now, she has to find connections to get to work on time. She isn't the only one.

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

Noles usually leaves home at 7:20 a.m. and makes it to school on time by 8:30 a.m. But on Monday she said she left at 6:50 a.m. didn't get to work until 9:10 a.m. — 40 minutes after she was supposed to arrive. Now she'll have to leave home at 6 a.m. to get to work on time.

"MissionMax isn't maximizing anything," Noles told a HART official on Sunday. "I know change is always hard, but this seems a little uncalled for."

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)

Depend on a HART bus to get around? Life could get harder. (Oct. 6, 2017)

The system redesign cut bus route miles by about 30 percent. But doing so, HART said, allowed it 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. Instead of dropping people off 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's why Vanessa Ramsey, 30, said she was late Monday for her shift at an airport gift shop.

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

If she had a car, she could make the 8-mile drive in about 12 minutes. Instead, she said she has to take three buses and wait 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 to 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," he said. "I've been burned too many times."

Times staff writer Melissa Gomez contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.