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Bus line cuts rile riders and officials

Just like some American car manufacturers of a few years ago, Hillsborough County's bus system has some problems: Its product isn't as good as it should be, and it doesn't have as many customers as it needs.

But the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HARTline) has a different dilemma from that of the car manufacturer who could just scale down the size of the V-8 gas guzzler because so few people were buying it.

To make its product _ bus service _ more attractive, HARTline has decided to make significant changes in the routes it runs, the places it goes and the distances it covers.

Starting this summer, some routes will be eliminated and others will be scaled back. The savings will be used to improve the most-used bus routes. The hope is that if bus service is faster and more convenient in a smaller area, more people will ride.

But when HARTline takes something away _ even in the name of making its overall service better _ its patrons can't simply go to a competitor to get what they want.

Many of those who ride the bus do so because they have no alternative. And if the bus stops coming, they stop going.

So far, hearings on the proposed changes have yielded complaints from several groups of residents on a few sparsely traveled routes who have begged HARTline not to cut off their only source of transportation.

HARTline says it understands their concerns and doesn't want to leave its small pockets of loyal riders high and dry. Executive Director Sharon Dent has spoken repeatedly of helping riders in areas slated for elimination of standard-size bus service to form van pools and arrange their own transportation to work. It won't work everywhere, but it's the best alternative HARTline can offer.

The other alternative, not changing the system, isn't an option, Dent says.

"The real gist of what I'm saying is that we've done a real intensive look at how we do business, and we've decided that it's not the way to do business in the future," Dent said at a briefing last week for county commissioners.

Some commissioners who heard the proposals have long thought that HARTline wasted its short supply of money by running those huge buses nearly empty. They applauded the changes.

But not everyone. Even if HARTline succeeds in streamlining its system through this summer's changes, it might have a new problem on its hands.

County Commissioner Jan Platt said her office has been receiving calls from county residents who resent the fact that the changes will reduce the bus service in unincorporated Hillsborough County and improve it in the city of Tampa.

The last time Platt checked, both of those governments had given HARTline operating subsidies of $200,000 a year for the past two years.

"That's going to need to be dealt with when you come and ask us for additional monies from the county. I believe the city should be a major contributor," Platt said.

Dent quickly acknowledged that service was being cut in the county, but said the reality is that the vast expanse of unincorporated Hillsborough is where some of HARTline's longest and least profitable trips take place.

Most of the commissioners seemed to think that $200,000 toward a strong mass transit system was a reasonable price to pay, even if that transit system was less accessible to some county residents.

But Commissioner Phyllis Busansky echoed Platt's words and described the challenge ahead for HARTline.

"I think it's your job to consolidate a bus system," Busansky said. "I also think its our job . . . (to make) a policy decision on how we spend our money."

Jennifer Orsi is the bureau chief of the Times' Northdale office.

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