The county's ailing transit agency agreed Thursday to reinstate Sunday bus service, reversing an earlier decision that would have left Sunday riders stranded beginning Nov. 11. The decision, however, is contingent on the Hillsborough County Commission's giving the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HARTline) $200,000 to help pay the cost of keeping the buses rolling. The city of Tampa already has agreed to contribute an equal amount in gas tax money.
Despite the vote, members of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board of directors conceded that their action was akin to pumping a gallon of gas into an almost empty tank.
It won't be long until the tank is again near empty. And next time, they said, no one will have a gas can.
"Regardless of whether we add Sunday service back or not, we've still got a big budget problem," said Lowry Baldwin, the only member of HARTline's board of directors to vote against keeping Sunday buses on the street. "We're still severely underfunded. This could come back to hurt people six months from now."
Even with a recent round of fare increases ranging up to 50 percent, the HARTline board has struggled for months to find a way to lessen an expected $2.5-million budget deficit for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The shortfall is the result of increased operating costs, declining government support and poor administration.
To lessen the projected deficit, the board decided last month to eliminate its 27 Sunday bus routes beginning Nov. 11. The service cuts would have saved the agency about $600,000 annually.
But an outcry from the community forced the board to reconsider. An estimated 5,000 people use HARTline buses Sundays.
After meeting with Tampa City Council members earlier this week, Mayor Sandy Freedman suggested a plan to restore partial service. Freedman, who also is a member of the HARTline board, offered to commit $200,000 in city gas tax money if the county would match the city grant.
"This is a stop-gap measure," Freedman said of the city's one-time assistance. "Things are probably going to get worse unless the balls start bouncing a different way."
Last week, county commissioners also discussed giving HARTline $200,000, but tied with a 3-3 vote. Commissioner Haven Poe, who missed the meeting, has since said she will support giving HARTline the extra money.
Commissioner Pam Iorio said Thursday that the board wouldn't consider the issue until Nov. 7, the earliest all seven members can attend a meeting.
If the county comes through with its share, HARTline Executive Director Sharon Dent said 11 core routes likely will run Sundays at a cost of about $40,000 a month. But if fuel costs continue to escalate, the Sunday service might last only another six months, she said.
"We're actually already losing ridership because people think it has already been cut," said Dent, who has headed HARTline for only two months.
Dent said she is trying to trim the budget any way she can. Big-ticket items, such as new buses, already have been moved out of this year's budget; drivers have been laid off, and a hiring freeze is in place. The agency also decided to allow advertising on buses to offset operating expenses.
Yet, the picture remains grim. "There's a good chance later in the year that we may have to make Sunday and Saturday cuts," Dent said.
Freedman stressed the importance of convening a task force that would attempt to find a long-range solution to HARTline's woes before new cuts are recommended.
"We need creative solutions," Freedman said. "We can't have a great big bus with two or three people on it."