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HART LOOKS TO REDUCE ROUTES AND SCHEDULES

More than a million riders a year might be affected by budget cuts.

Now that voters have demanded lower property taxes, Hillsborough County's bus agency will have to make cuts in its routes and schedules that could freeze out more than a million passengers a year, officials were told Monday.

That's a significant number for a bus service that carries roughly 11-million riders annually.

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit will have to make tough choices. On Monday, for example, it canceled a Carrollwood express bus and took nearly $1-million that had been slated for Tampa's electric streetcar and shifted it to bus routes along Nebraska Avenue, where some buses are standing room only.

HART, which gets most of its funding from property taxes, stands to lose $2.8-million to $3.4-million from its $36.7-million operating budget, executive director David Armijo told its governing board.

The agency likely will have to trim more than 55,000 hours a year from its bus schedules, he said, and it could potentially lose 1.1-million riders.

The cutbacks are coming because Floridians voted last week to roll back property taxes. Like other government agencies, HART's budget had grown in recent years from rising property values.

Between 2003 and 2007, its overall budget rose more than 80 percent, from $29.7-million to $54.5-million, which allowed it to expand bus service. As a result, its total number of passengers rose 35 percent.

Now HART will be focusing more on places where it gets the most bang for its buck, such as bus routes along Nebraska, Hillsborough and Florida avenues, Busch Boulevard, and 22nd, 40th and 56th streets.

It will have to drop some of its less-used routes in the coming fiscal year. For starters, the HART board agreed Monday to cancel Route 26X, the "Carrollwood Express," a commuter service that runs from N Dale Mabry Highway to downtown on weekday mornings and back in the evenings. Its two buses have each been carrying fewer than six passengers per trip.

Also on Monday, board members voted unanimously to redirect a $900,000 federal grant that could have helped extend the TECO Line streetcar tracks four blocks farther into the downtown core. The goal was to attract more local passengers. Right now, the streetcar's core clientele is largely tourists and conventioneers.

But time was running out on the soon-to-expire grant, and officials decided they couldn't risk losing the federal dollars. They're still seeking other grants for the $3.8- to $4.4-million streetcar extension.

In another move, the bus agency is reaching out to advertisers. It signed a deal Monday with Signal Outdoor Advertising, a company that will spend $5-million to build 200 bus shelters in the next two years throughout Hillsborough County in exchange for the right to post ads on them. It also will retrofit, maintain and clean 150 existing shelters.

HART gets a slice of the profits, to the tune of $60,000 per year by the second year.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3435.

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