Thursday, March 22, 2018

Even transit leaders don't rely on their own buses

The debate over if and how to expand Tampa Bay's transit system has dominated civic discussions for decades.

The region's bus system lags behind almost every other major city when it comes to frequency, spending and access to jobs.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why.

PSTA chief rides the bus, gets an earful of feedback

While politicians hold the purse strings, it's those on the transit agencies' boards who dictate how the systems operate.

Board members for the two counties' agencies — Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority — are a mix of elected officials and community members.

None of them rely on the bus for work, errands or their personal life.

This isn't unique to Tampa Bay, or transit. Many boards are composed of people who don't use the service they help provide. But in a region roiled by transportation problems, it's worth knowing who sits on these boards and what philosophies they bring to the conversation.

We called all 28 board members to learn more about their individual experience with transit. Three did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Half a dozen people said they try to ride the bus monthly. Others take transit here once or twice a year, while three board members have never used the service provided by the agency they help run.

Here's a sampling of the reasons why even those who decide our transit agencies' futures don't ride the bus.


Three board members have never ridden a bus here and said it doesn't affect their ability to do their job.


Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White said he hasn't found a reason to take a bus.



Stacy White


"I am automobile person. I really have no apologies, for lack of a better term, that I haven't ridden a HART bus. I don't feel like I need to be on a HART bus on a regular basis to be an effective HART board member."

Dunedin Commissioner John Tornga said it's normal for board members not to use the product or service they're making decisions about.


"You could have a board of directors for Nike that don't wear the shoes, but they'd all have the knowledge and understanding to listen to the constituents or users."

Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard said she doesn't need to ride the bus to know how bad it is.


"I know it's a terrible system. Frankly, I don't think (riding the bus) is a necessary component of understanding how inadequate it is."


Several board members said their schedules make it too difficult to ride the bus with any regularity.



Pat Kemp


Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp said taking the bus isn't possible with all the meetings she attends.


"I would like to ride transit more if I wasn't so busy working on the transit issue. ... It's not very amenable to my kind of schedule. I'm not an 8-to-5 in one place type of person."

Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez said it would be impossible to ride the bus and still meet with his insurance clients.


"There's no way you can do it. For office workers who have set hours and set places, it works very well…I have to have a vehicle."

Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers also said the schedule doesn't fit with his liftestyle.


"I'm in and out of the office all the time, so it would be really inconvenient for me to use the bus system."


Dave Eggers


Hillsborough County Commissioner and HART chair Les Miller said his busy schedule makes it "awfully difficult to jump on the bus."


"Does that effect the decisions I make or try to make for HART to make it better for people to ride the bus? No."


Most have ridden the bus a time or two while serving with PSTA or HART, but said it's a rare occurrence.


HART board member John Melendez said it costs him less than $10 more a month to drive to work than it would to take the bus.


"It just doesn't work for me economically. I can take my own vehicle, which gives me the ability to go to spontaneous meetings without those constraints."

Largo Commissioner Samantha Fenger used to depend on the bus system when she worked in Tampa, but since she moved, she walks and drives.



Samantha Fenger


"I haven't had to use it because of how convenient my location is. But I think riding the 300x has given me enough experience to understand the system very well."

Oldsmar Mayor Doug Bevis said riding the bus should not be a board requirement.


"It's just not efficient for me. To understand why I can't ride is just as valuable to me."

PSTA board member Brian Scott hasn't ridden in more than a year, but said his job as president of ESCOT Bus Lines, a charter bus service in St. Petersburg, gives him valuable experience.


"My business is buses. I think I have a better understanding of how buses work since that's what I do."

Temple Terrace Council member Cheri Donohue said she has not had a reason to ride the bus, because she lives and works within the same two-mile radius.


"I know it sounds terrible. I'll use the, 'I'm new' card…Shame on us that we're not riding the bus, for whatever our excuse is


Some said riding the bus benefits them as a board member, so they try to do so several times a year.


HART vice-chair Karen Jaroch said it's important to see firsthand what works and what doesn't.


"As board members, most of our information is gleaned from staff. I like to have experiences to either back that up or to be able to ask questions, because I only get rosy pictures when I'm in the HART board meeting."


Karen Jaroch


Hillsborough County Commission Sandy Murman said it's essential to take the bus in order to govern. Still, she rarely rides more than once or twice a year, due to schedules.


"I live on Davis Island and they have all but discontinued most of the bus service, except to Tampa General Hospital."

St. Petersburg City Council member and PSTA Chair Darden Rice said board members should ride at least three or four times a year.


"If you're in a position to make decisions you really need to understand things."

North Redington Beach Commissioner Richard Bennett said board members could benefit from riding the buses regularly.


"I would agree to a riding requirement, and a report to the director re: the experience."

Tampa businesswoman Kathleen Shanahan said she's ridden several times to get a feel for the service, and uses transit frequently in other cities.


"You should always be familiar with what your area of jurisdiction is…But having the expectation that every member of the HART board is going to ride the bus every day to and from their meetings, I don't think it should be an expectation of service."

HART board member Wallace Bowers said there's no specific reason he doesn't ride the bus. He just like the convenience of his car.


"I don't think that there's any harm in not using the bus. Most of us are very busy."


A handful of board members said they try to ride the bus at least once a month.


Tampa architect Micky Jacob used to take the streetcar to HART board meetings, until a route change made that impossible.



Mickey Jacob


"If we're going to be presiding over public transportation, I should be familiar with how it works. When you ride the bus, you see how people really use it."

HART board member Richard McClain said the system is reliable, but more complicated when he has multiple meetings a day.


"My biggest drawback is not the system itself, it's the types of meetings I have when I'm bouncing all around the city. It makes it tough to coordinate and get it all done."

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said she takes the bus about a dozen times a year, including with her grandchildren.


"I want them to understand how to use it before they're asking to be dropped off all kinds of places."

St. Petersburg resident Joshua Shulman said has been able to ride the bus more often for social events since his family moved.



Josh Shulman


"We're more in the route system than we were at our old house. So far we've ridden it four times to events downtown."

Belleair Bluffs commissioner Joseph Barkley rides once or twice a month to see how the buses are operating.


"It's a way for me to check and see if things are going well. That's when I see the timeliness, if the wifi is on, check how many people are on."

St. Petersburg City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said she doesn't ride the bus to get around but instead to talk to riders and see how things are going.


"Everybody needs to get out there and see how things are working. That's important."


Clearwater Vice-Mayor Bill Jonson had been riding a few times a month until recently.



Bill Jonson


Inspired by PSTA executive director Brad Miller's decision to ride the bus for a month in June, Jonson upped his ridership to three to five times a week, including meetings, doctor's appointments and the mall.

Jonson said it's not something his fellow board members should have to do, but he did have different experiences when he was using it more frequently as opposed to only when it was convenient.


"I learned some more things that I did not know from my previous bus rides…and I think I'm a better board member for that."

Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, Pinellas Park City Council member Patricia Johnson and HART board member Bryan Crino did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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