SEFFNER — The county's transit agency must return nearly $710,000 for failing to start up seven new flexible bus routes in Brandon and Seffner.
Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean earlier this month rejected the agency's June request to keep the money for a less ambitious flexible service program in two communities.
Plans called for using 12- to 15-passenger shuttle vans to pick up and drop off riders at any location within designated areas.
Ed Crawford, government affairs chief for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, said last year's voter-mandated property tax cut forced the agency to park its original flexible-service plan.
"We didn't want to put something out there that a year later we would have to take back," Crawford said Sept. 22.
Now even the smaller version of the plan is on hold.
Crawford said HART used about $40,000 of the county's $750,000 appropriation for express routes in Carrollwood and Citrus Park.
Bean, in a Sept. 16 letter to HART, said she wants the $709,767 balance returned "as soon as possible."
She said the money will be used for other transportation-related needs in the county, though she didn't name specific projects.
"We've probably got more than enough things we can do with it," Bean said.
Bean added that she lost track of HART's June 6 request to keep the money, though discussions continued at the staff level.
Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who represents parts of South Shore and Town 'N County, said she is disappointed that the money wasn't returned before the county's annual budget vote.
"To get the refund after we balance the budget, that's a shame," said Ferlita, who also sits on the HART board.
Residents of unincorporated Hillsborough have complained for years about subsidizing bus routes in Tampa while suburban communities are left with fewer public transit options.
To answer these complaints, HART proposed the flexible routes for Temple Terrace, Town 'N Country, Seffner, Carrollwood and three areas in Brandon.
Crawford said nine shuttle vans purchased for the proposed flexible service are being used to replace HART's aging paratransit fleet for riders with disabilities.
He said the agency still wants to provide flexible service in South Shore and Town 'N County, but acknowledged "there's nothing on the table at the moment."
County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, whose district includes some eastern suburbs, said he would rather see the transit agency keep the $710,000.
"Obviously, I'd like to see more routes," said Higginbotham, who also sits on HART's board. "HART has a lot of untold success stories in the unincorporated areas."