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Tampa’s popular Downtowner rides could end soon unless someone pays for them

Money for the service runs out March 31. Members of the Hillsborough transit agency board are reluctant to pay for it.
Chris Murray with the Downtowner ride service drops off a passenger in the Channelside area. The popular free service is now in jeopardy. [Times (2017)]
Chris Murray with the Downtowner ride service drops off a passenger in the Channelside area. The popular free service is now in jeopardy. [Times (2017)]

TAMPA — The days of opening a smartphone app and catching a free ride anywhere within Tampa’s downtown may soon be over.

The popular Downtowner service, which launched in October 2016, is running out of money — and local agencies are playing hot potato to see who will be left with the check.

The Tampa Downtown Partnership created the ride service, similar to Uber or Lyft except free and limited to the downtown area. The Downtowner launched with electric carts and quickly gained popularity, with riders experiencing waits of 45 minutes or longer at peak times.

Organizers tweaked the offerings, replaced the carts with electric Teslas then Chevy Bolts, and eventually brought the average wait time down to 15 minutes. The service has provided more than 560,000 rides in the last three years. December saw an average of 448 people catching a ride each day.

But a couple years in, the federal, state and local grants that had funded the program expired. In August, the nonprofit partnership approached the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority asking for help.

Related: How long will Tampa keep its free 'Downtowner' ride service? Transit officials look for answers.

The transit authority agreed to pay $568,000 to keep the service running for eight months until another plan could be developed. But that money runs out March 31 and no one has stepped up to pay for the service long term.

Hillsborough transit authority staff asked the board’s strategic planning committee Monday if they’d be willing to spend nearly $100,000 to keep the Downtowner running through June 30 while alternative plans are reviewed. Options include replacing it with a circulator that occasionally deviates from a set route.

The Florida Department of Transportation has agreed to match that amount. The total operating cost for three months of the point-to-point service is $192,000.

But some members of the county’s transit agency questioned whether the bus authority should foot the bill for a free service that overlaps with existing transit options. The agency already provides fixed-route service downtown with set stops, including the TECO Line streetcar and a host of regular bus routes.

“There’s a lot of duplicative services,” board member Kathleen Shanahan said. “It’s point-to-point. There are people who are using this instead of paying for a bus or a Lyft, and they’re not visitors."

Senior planner Justin Willits told committee members the goal was to get the $96,000 from Tampa’s Community Redevelopment Areas, entities created specifically to jump-start blighted neighborhoods.

Related: In Tampa and St. Pete, new riders flock to free downtown transit lines

“If they are not able to fill that match, this is not a budgeted item,” Willits said. “It would have to come from our reserves, or we could discontinue the service at the end of the month.”

But Tampa City Council chairman Luis Viera and council member Joseph Citro, chairman of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, told the Times they have never heard of this proposal.

Citro said budgets are already set for 2020 and no money is allotted for the Downtowner. What’s more, he said, the downtown redevelopment areas already contribute a total of $450,000 a year toward the cost of the free streetcar system.

“They’re already asking us to contribute to the streetcar,” Citro said. “How much more money are they going to continue to ask of us for transportation in and around Ybor City, the Channelside and the Downtown area?”

The transit agency’s strategic planning committee voted unanimously to put the proposal before the full board with a recommendation to reject it, especially in light of uncertainty over the agency’s budget.

Related: Florida Supreme Court to decide future of Hillsborough's transportation tax

Hillsborough’s transit authority was poised to more than double its budget following the passage of a one-cent transportation sales tax in November 2018. But a lawsuit questioning the validity of the tax is now before the Florida Supreme Court. Depending on how the justices rule, the transit authority could see a major influx of money or continue with one of the smallest operating budgets in the country for a transit agency its size.

“Without knowing the outcome of the surtax, I’m hesitant,” board member and Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman said.

Other board members agreed, saying the agency should take a fiscally conservative approach in a time of uncertainty.

“I’m not in favor of spending any more money on this,” board member and Temple Terrace City Council Member Gil Shisler said. “We’re hogtied because of the referendum issue being tied up in Tallahassee.”

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