At midday Tuesday, the 320-space park-and-ride lot north of Tampa was empty. For the first part of the trip downtown, a bus was, too.
Then ridership picked up once a MetroRapid bus left Fletcher Avenue and headed south along Nebraska Avenue.
But confusion set in.
On the debut day of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority's newest service, riders quickly learned the new green-and-white buses don't stop where the normal ones do — no matter how much a passenger protests.
Financed through the county's Community Investment Tax, the roughly $25 million MetroRapid project is meant to better serve current riders and lure new ones to ditch their cars in favor of mass transportation.
For many, Tuesday was a learning experience.
"It's still the first day," said Sandra Pinto, HART spokeswoman. "People are still trying to figure out the whole new service."
Featuring 12 buses equipped with Transit Signal Priority, a GPS-based technology that extends green lights and shortens red lights, MetroRapid shaves 15 to 20 percent off normal bus route travel time, clocking it at about an hour for the entire route.
The route begins on the north end at a new park-and-ride lot at Hidden River Parkway near Fletcher Avenue and Telecom Parkway. Equipped with a shelter and ticket vending machine, the site was built to encourage commuters who live in North Tampa but work downtown to use the system.
HART expects riders to take about 800,000 trips on MetroRapid through the end of the fiscal year that ends in September. And the goal is to have 60 percent of riders be new mass transit customers within a year, as opposed to those who already use the transit system.
There's hope that the new park-and-ride lot will soon fill with those new riders.
"That is us experimenting with new territory," Pinto said. "It's still a new service that we have never provided before and people have to learn about it."
From there, the buses travel west on Fletcher to the more busy University Transit Center, and then head on a 45-minute ride south on Nebraska Avenue, ending downtown at the Marion Transit Center.
Along the way, MetroRapid buses pass a number of normal route stops, but slow down only for the 59 green-and-white shelters — a fact not every rider realized Tuesday.
Still, many who climbed aboard, even by accident, said they were glad to see a new service run through their neighborhood.
"I like it," said Robert Buchin, who lives along the route. "It's going to be a lot more convenient because it runs every 15 minutes and I'll use it to get to work and medical appointments."
The service is free through June 7. After that, a one-way ride will cost $2, the same as a normal fare.
Tanya Lisa, 57, lives downtown and had been hearing about MetroRapid for weeks. So on Tuesday, with nowhere specific in mind to go, she took a trip to Temple Terrace and back.
"I'm retired so I'll probably take the bus for quick stops to Walmart or the Salvation Army," Lisa said. "It's a straight shot, and it's very comfortable."
By the end of the day, some of the earlier confusion had died down as riders made the commute back home on MetroRapid.
"I know there's going to be a transition period because people are still trying to figure this route out," said Kim Carrington, who lives in Seminole Heights and works downtown at the Glazer Children's Museum. But in the end, it's worth it, she said.
"The stop is further from my house," she said, "but it's quicker."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.