Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

RNC delegates fume over bus delays; officials work on logistics

Update: Delegates arriving late Wednesday and early Thursday at the bus hub set up at Raymond James Stadium encountered a new regimen meant to iron out the delays and confusion of the night before.

One lane of Himes Avenue had been blocked to other traffic so buses ferrying delegates from the Tampa Bay Times Forum to the stadium hub had better access.

Then once at the stadium, delegates no longer had to go in search of other buses to take them to their respective hotels. The buses came to them instead as the arriving delegations were announced. Organizers held up big signs representing each delegation — "Georgia," for instance — to help buses zero in on the correct passengers.

A heavy police presence surrounded the stadium, but it was unclear how much of it was due to a private "Taste of Southern Hospitality" party also being held there for several delegations. Motorcycle officers were posted at every entrance. Others with assault rifles stood guard.

Here is the earlier article:

•••

TAMPA — John Zajicek only wanted to return to his hotel after a long night of rousing speeches at the Republican National Convention.

So when the Tampa Bay Times Forum emptied at 11 p.m. Tuesday, Zajicek made a beeline for the buses.

Only there were none to be found. He turned one way, then another.

"Nobody knew where they were going to catch the bus," said Zajicek, a Republican donor from Illinois. "You would ask one person one thing and go that way, and then somebody else would tell you to go the other way. There were no signs. Nothing. It took a half-hour just to get to the bus."

The delegates were supposed to ride buses from the event zone to Raymond James Stadium, where another fleet would whisk them to hotels.

But it didn't work out that way. One problem after another arose, and by the time many delegates returned to their rooms, it was well after 3 a.m.

The late-night delays were the latest in a series of mishaps that have raised questions about the Republican National Committee's plan to move delegates. The problems also underscored the exceptional challenges of moving people around a sprawling metropolitan Tampa Bay area.

The RNC's Committee on Arrangements and its transportation management company, Chicago-based SP Plus Gameday, are responsible for moving the delegates from the RNC event zone downtown to the more than 100 hotels scattered across the Tampa Bay area. They hired 400 buses to execute the plan.

It seemed to work when it came time to getting the delegates into the event zone. The plan fell apart, however, when it came to getting them back to their hotels.

Delegates pouring out of the Times Forum walked in circles looking for buses to take them to Raymond James Stadium and their hotels. Once they arrived at the stadium, more problems awaited.

The buses inched ahead bumper-to-bumper along a narrow two-lane road to enter the parking area. It took some buses 20 minutes to get inside.

Then, delegates who were dropped off couldn't figure out which buses were heading to the hotels. Zajicek said he ended up walking from one bus to the next, asking drivers whether they were headed to his hotel, the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater Beach. Finding the right bus, he boarded, sat another half-hour, and got back at 3 a.m.

The problem, delegates said, was the traffic and congestion around the Times Forum and stadium.

Many delegates reported waiting a half-hour to an hour between stops as buses slowly crept forward to the dropoff and pickup zones. The Florida delegates waited 30 minutes at the Times Forum, then another hour to board a second set of buses to Palm Harbor's Innisbrook Golf and Spa Resort, more than 50 minutes away.

"It was a disaster," said Karen Dove, a 55-year-old from Brevard County who didn't get back to her room until after 3 a.m. "It got so bad that people revolted. They actually got off the bus and took a cab."

The Republican Party of Florida, hoping to avoid similar problems the remainder of the convention, on Wednesday hired a bus company, Mears Transportation, not affiliated with the RNC's official transportation manager.

"Today we've taken it upon ourselves to increase the availability of our six Florida party buses and will now have them available to take our delegates to and from downtown Tampa for the convention," state GOP press secretary Kristen McDonald said in an email.

The Florida delegates weren't the only ones fuming.

Members of the Utah delegation said it took more than two hours to get from the Times Forum to their Hilton Hotel near International Plaza, with at least one bus sweltering hot because of poor air conditioning.

"To move that many people quickly is really tough. I think they're going to make some tweaks tonight. I don't think it was a question of the physical number of buses. I think it was the system of getting people on and off,'' said Enid Mickelson, Utah's national committeewoman.

Zajicek, a 55-year-old businessman from Freeport, Ill., said the lengthy delays and lack of assistance would have made the experience comical if not so frustrating.

"Everyone was very nice and cordial, but it was a disaster," he said. "They need to have some leadership and get this thing solved for tonight."

James Davis, the RNC's spokesman for the Committee on Arrangements, said the committee and its bus service provider are working together to fix the problems.

The committee was trying Wednesday to add more signs, lighting and staff to direct the delegates and buses, said Mike Witte, an SP Plus Gameday project manager.

"Everybody is doing everything they can to solve these issues," he said.

Whether the city lends a hand seemed up in the air Wednesday afternoon. Cristal Bermudez, a spokeswoman at the convention's Joint Information Center, said the bus route and schedule were developed by the RNC's Committee on Arrangements and SP Plus Gameday.

"We are ready and willing to assist in any way we can," city spokeswoman Ali Glisson said in a statement.

Alberto Gutier, a 72-year-old Arizona delegate, and his wife, 70, might think twice before attending tonight's session. The two decided to skip a party after the Tuesday night session and headed out at 11:20 p.m. to catch a bus.

They waited 30 minutes for the bus to arrive. During the ride, the driver appeared lost, and a Florida delegate from Tampa offered to help with directions. Another woman on the bus, apparently overcome by the situation, sprawled across a seat.

"I thought she was going to have a stroke or something," Gutier said.

Once at the stadium, the delegates waited another 30 minutes until the bus doors opened.

"Everybody's been complaining," said Gutier, who has attended other conventions, including in St. Paul, Minn., and Philadelphia. "The logistics for the buses (here) is the most horrendous I've ever seen in my life."

Staff writers Robbyn Mitchell, Laura C. Morel, Adam C. Smith and Richard Danielson contributed to this report.

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