PLANT CITY — As the evening express bus pulls into a tiny church parking lot, County Commissioner Al Higginbotham sits in the third row.
But when officials decide the future of public transportation in Hillsborough County, Higginbotham will sit at the front of the room. He started occasionally riding local buses when he was running for office.
"I'd done it before on vacation, but never in my hometown," he said. "I had this impression — we don't do it here."
It's an assumption many residents make, said Higginbotham, who now sits on the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board.
While ridership has increased significantly across the county, demand remains lower in south Hillsborough, HART spokeswoman Kathy Karalekas said. With tax revenue down, some local routes will likely be cut.
HART officials will discuss the proposed changes in a meeting in Ruskin on Monday.
"We have to pretty much find a new way to serve that area... It's hard to serve an area that's as spread out as it is down there," she said.
In November, HART hopes to introduce a new "flex" route along State Road 674, which would allow riders to make reservations for pickup within a certain area rather than waiting at bus stops along the road.
Express routes, however, remain popular, Karalekas said. Five such bus routes connect south Hillsborough with downtown Tampa and MacDill Air Force Base.
"I'm a bus fan," Higginbotham said as he rode the 28X from downtown Tampa one recent evening, a brown briefcase by his side. "The things people miss by driving by themselves are the relationships they build with other riders."
One passenger waved as Higginbotham walked toward the stop. On the bus, another passenger patted him on the back as they said their goodbyes.
Higginbotham lives 2 miles from a Park-N-Ride site at Mount Zion Assembly of God at the edge of Plant City in unincorporated Hillsborough. It takes about 40 minutes to get there from downtown Tampa on the express bus.
The number of passengers on county buses has notably increased with a recent spike in gas prices, he said.
The 24X express bus from FishHawk Ranch to MacDill Air Force Base had a 42 percent increase in passengers between 2007 and 2008.
But despite an overall ridership increase of 7.2 percent, the system's funding remains uncertain. Last year, about 67 percent of HART's $54.3-million operating budget came from taxes.
A task force is considering revenue alternatives.
In the next two years, Higginbotham said, county commissioners will likely decide whether to put a referendum about sales tax funding for HART on the ballot.
"It's going to be a big debate," he said. "I'm going to listen to what the people want me to do."
Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at [email protected] or 661-2454.