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Rail may get the glamor, but beefing up bus service is a big vote too

Surely the coolest-sounding part of a transit package being considered by Hillsborough voters — if you can legally use the words "cool" and "transit" in the same sentence — is rail.

Imagine one day routinely hopping on a train for work or play. Imagine how rail could boost our region, particularly with other counties on board (so to speak). All of which is part of the pitch to convince leery voters to pony up for a penny increases in sales taxes to pay for it.

Pastor W. James Favorite is a rail believer. But from where he sits, there's another big and practical part to the proposed package: Buses for the people who need them most.

If the penny tax passes, 43 percent goes to light rail and 25 percent to road improvements. Thirty-two percent would immediately begin beefing up a historically anemic bus service that has had some bad blood in urban neighborhoods it serves.

"We ride the bus," says Favorite, pastor at Beulah Baptist Church at the edge of downtown Tampa. "It's really being at the mercy of public transportation."

He tells me his church, founded in 1865, was once a place where freed slaves were taught to write. Today it's surrounded by small, older homes alternately shabby and neat, with tidy lawns, sagging AC units and chain-link fences, a neighborhood of both character and struggle.

For progress, he points down the road to where faux-brick apartments called Vintage Lofts have sprouted. "We're calling this the New Hyde Park," he says, Hyde Park being a pricier address to the south. If voters come through, he hopes for a rail line to kick-start new life along once-bustling Main Street nearby.

And about those buses.

Since he came here from Baltimore 16 years ago — a city that knows how to move people around, he says — he has seen older women taking the bus to bigger, better grocery stores in other neighborhoods, a trip that can involve transferring and waiting who knows how long. A couple in his congregation tried the bus when one of their cars died, gave it up as unreliable and had to leave hours early for work so one could drop off the other. Elderly people rely on cabs or neighbors to get to their doctors. A young man he knows catches the bus at 8 a.m. to be at work by noon.

"I see it every day — pretty much no option," he says.

Favorite has not been shy in saying that, historically, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit's decisions on where and where not to put routes and bus shelters have been at times "offensive to us in the African-American community." Mayor Pam Iorio agrees the relationship has been rocky, though both she and the pastor say things have improved some. David Armijo, HART's CEO since 2007, has emphasized community outreach and basics like clean buses.

But how much can you do when the tax rate that makes up half your bus service budget is down, ridership is up and you cover 1,200 square-miles of county?

All of which sounds like a great argument for a transit package that would more than double the bus system. These days, Favorite is part of the pro-rail pitch alongside former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis. Favorite wanted a seat at that transit table.

It's a tough sell to cash-strapped voters. Boosters call it a boon, naysayers a boondoggle.

The pastor? From where he sits, "a must have," he says.

Rail may get the glamor, but beefing up bus service is a big vote too 09/14/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 14, 2010 6:40pm]
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