TAMPA — In a world ruled by cars, downtown's Marion Street stands alone. It's the rare road in the Tampa Bay area where cars aren't allowed.
Instead it's a 10-block "transitway," a street solely for public buses that rumble north and south through downtown. It's also free to ride on, but that's about to change.
Bus officials say the free-ride policy isn't working out anymore. They intend to start charging a fare to travel the transitway— partly because money is tight for the bus system, and partly because of complaints about homeless people riding up and down in the free air-conditioned buses to escape the heat.
Hillsborough Area Regional Transit says most passengers on the Marion Street Transitway won't be affected by the change. Most of them are traveling around with all-day bus passes or monthly fare cards, so they won't have to pay extra to ride one more bus.
Still, some mass transit advocates see this as a step backward.
"We would like to see that continue to be a fare-free zone," said Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. "HART says about 80 percent of the riders there already have passes, but that means 20 percent are people who don't normally ride another bus.
"Other city centers we look to as models for transportation, like Portland and Chattanooga, have areas within downtown where you can just hop on a free bus instead of taking your car."
However, local bus officials say Tampa's downtown doesn't have as much activity as those other cities do at this point, and Marion Street's free zone hasn't worked out the way it was intended.
"In Portland, you can get on any public transit vehicle in the entire downtown and you don't have to pay a fare until it comes to the edge of downtown. Our free fare zone was never to that kind of scale," said HART spokesman Ed Crawford. "That's not to say we couldn't reinstate it if it makes sense in the future."
Crawford said passengers who just need a lift through downtown have a cheap option — the fare has dropped from 50 to 25 cents on the yellow trolleys that circulate in downtown. HART hopes that will induce more people to take the trolley.
Buses on Marion Street will soon charge the regular bus fare. HART expects to raise that from $1.50 to $1.75 per ride, and to raise the cost of daily and monthly fare cards. If approved by HART's board of directors, the changes would take effect in November.
Interviews with local bus passengers suggest no one is surprised. "Everything is going up because of gas prices. Everybody understands that," said Dwayne Davis, 35, of Tampa, who was using the transitway to run errands downtown.
Key cog for the future
No matter what, the transitway is staying put. The city views it as a key cog for a future light rail system.
Car drivers tempted to turn onto Marion Street see these signs: Do not enter. Transit vehicles only. Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The bus mall has fancy brick sidewalks and tree-shaded, copper-colored bus shelters. It's purely a travel corridor, with no businesses to speak of along it. It ferries riders from a major bus terminal and cheap parking lots on the north end of downtown to the core of office towers and government buildings farther south.
It has been that way for 19 years. Before the transitway was created in 1989, herds of buses used to scoop up passengers along Florida Avenue.
Although HART says there have been discussions over the years about the city possibly taking back Marion Street for car traffic, officials say that's not currently in their plans.
With Mayor Pam Iorio's goal of building a better mass transit system, it only makes sense to keep the street the way it is, said Tampa public works administrator Steve Daignault.
Light rail network plans
Plans for a light rail network in Tampa show electric trains running from downtown to West Shore and the University of South Florida area.
If that ever happens, where exactly would those trains run through downtown? That's yet to be decided, although one plan shows them following an existing railroad line along Polk Street.
Once commuters stepped off a train at a downtown station, they would need options like the transitway and the trolleys to get around, officials say.
Crawford said of Marion Street: "That's as logical a place as any for a station. It's set up to be a distribution network."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.