Fare hikes and route changes are essential for the Hillsborough County's bus service to survive in its current form, transit officials say.
Hit by rising fuel costs, a cap on fares since 2008 and, most significantly, a drop in property tax revenue, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit officials say they're out of options.
"We have been cutting costs but it has now reached a point where we have cut (as far as we can)," said Philip Hale, HART's chief executive officer. "These changes are essential for HART to be sustainable for the next five years."
HART officials unveiled the changes Tuesday night at a meeting in Brandon.
While HART is hurting financially, ridership is booming. There were 1,221,771 passengers in May, up 3.8 percent from May 2011 — the 28th consecutive month for bus ridership increases. Overall, ridership is up 6 percent since October, according to HART's figures.
Bus fares, however, account for only 22 percent of HART's revenue, Hale said. The largest share of the agency's income — 40 percent — comes from property taxes. As property values have declined, so has HART's revenue.
"Never has the demand for service been greater while the ability to supply that service been lower," said Steve Feigenbaum, who oversees HART's schedules and routes.
HART's proposals calls for $2 local and limited express rides and $3 fares for express buses, a 25-cent increase in both cases. One-day unlimited ride passes for local and limited express service would rise to $4, a 25-cent increase.
The popular 31-day unlimited ride pass would from rise from $60 to $65 for local and limited express and from $90 to $95 for 31-day express passes. The adult-student fare for the same bus pass, sold through local colleges and universities, would increase from $45 to $48.75.
Similar increases are also proposed for HartFlex, ADA Paratransit and one-day, 10-pack fares.
HART also wants to eliminate the 28X express bus which connects downtown Tampa to Plant City and runs through Mango and Seffner.
Deanna Berrier takes the 28X every day from her Seffner home to her job in Tampa, She isn't happy about the prospect of losing her ride to work.
"I understand the money is not there but they need to find alternatives like a sales tax. The 28X is all that serves the eastern county. I love taking that bus."
The 50X express, which runs from Citrus Park/Carrollwood to Tampa, and the 61LX, which runs from the Northwest Transfer Center to Tampa, would also be combined into a new limited express.
HART also is proposing eliminating Saturday service for the Brandon flex routes.
HART's website (gohart.org) has a detailed listing of all the proposed fare increases and route changes. There are four more community meetings before the HART board's July 10 public hearing.
The route changes will save HART $250,414, according to Feigenbaum.
"We've been losing millions in revenue each year since the housing market tanked in 2008 but we have cut marginal routes and cut people to maintain an above-average service, more than many transit systems have been able to do," Feigenbaum said. "We are now down to essential services. Any cuts beyond this are going to be painful and they won't go unnoticed."
Buses are a part of life for Tampa's Zachary Ziegler, one of a handful who turned out for the Brandon meeting.
"Admittedly it's painful to hear about the cuts but times are hard and cuts have to be made," Ziegler said.
Kevin Brady can be reached at email@example.com.