TAMPA — David Carter knows the bus routes in Hillsborough by heart.
He takes the bus every day for work, errands and getting around town. He knows which tend to run late, which drivers are cheerful in the morning and which connections are tough to make.
That’s why he’s concerned about some of the changes the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is proposing for its bus routes starting next year. The transit authority, which is waiting to hear whether a 2018 sales tax that could nearly double its budget will be upheld, is looking to restructure some of its routes that it can no longer afford to run.
That involves eliminating all 15-minute frequency on existing routes. The frequency for a route is how long riders have to wait at a stop before the next bus comes. Longer frequencies can mean longer travel times, especially for those who have to catch two or three buses to get where they need to go. The shortest wait time in Hillsborough is 15 minutes. That will change to 20 next year if the changes are approved. On most routes, passengers wait 30 minutes or an hour for the next bus.
“To go to 20 minutes will make waiting times even longer on all routes, because they forget that a lot of routes are interconnected,” Carter, 33, said.
The time changes, along with the altering of some stops, are a result of a strained budget. The transit authority has watched expenses climb while reserves have largely declined since 2014.
“The bottom line here is, again, expenses are exceeding our revenues year after year,” transit authority interim Chief Financial Officer Cyndy Stiglich told the board this summer. “Since (2014) through this fiscal year, that equates to almost a $26 million deficit.”
The proposed changes, amounting to a 10-percent service cut, would save $4.3 million a year. They include cutting nine express and flex routes, reducing frequency on eight routes and adjusting the stops and directions of a dozen others.
None of Carter’s routes are affected, but he shared feedback Thursday with HART staff members who are collecting input on the new route maps.
“The routes you have right now aren’t serving where people need to get to,” Carter told transportation planner Justin Willits as they looked at maps set up at the Netpark Transfer Center. “If you were waiting for a bus, you wouldn’t want to wait that long.”
Willits and other staff members are visiting the county’s main transfer centers over a three-week period to get feedback on what parts of the changes people like and which are problematic. They’ll be at Netpark, Yukon, University and Marion transfer centers today through Thursday to speak with riders. People can also leave comments and fill out an on-line survey at hartserviceinput.com.
Sandra Bailey, 70, had missed her connection at Netpark Thursday morning when the bus she rode there arrived a few minutes late. That meant Bailey, who’s retired, had to wait almost an hour for the next Route 38 bus to come. She played music on her phone and looked at the changes displayed on poster boards.
“Oh Lordy, you’re changing my 42,” Bailey told Willits as she peered at one of the maps. “That’s a good bus for me. I ride it all the time.”
Willits explained that the 42 will no longer serve Yukon Transfer Center, where Bailey currently catches it. Instead, it will shorten to a one-way loop along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, Nebraska, Bearss and 131st avenues. Route 45 will extend north to the University Area Transfer Center, taking over part of the old Route 42. Neither will go to Yukon Transfer Center anymore, where Bailey caught the bus.
The change simplifies the route and shortens the trip for some, but it leaves others like Bailey with fewer options.
Many of the riders Willits spoke with Thursday were less concerned about the cuts and more curious when the bus routes would return to normal. HART had to cut service when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Service on some local routes was restored in August, but about a third of routes are still operating on a Sunday schedule, with limited times and frequency.
Carter thinks some of the changes will be good for riders and will make some trips more direct. The plan also creates a new route from Marion Transit Center to Tampa International Airport via Cypress Street.
Willits explained to Bailey and others who asked questions that the bus agency has to make decisions based on the number of riders and the cost of each trip. Not every route has enough people taking it every day to support the cost of running the bus and paying the drivers.
“We’re kind of spread thin with our resources right now... we’re actually reducing frequency on some of our main routes,” Willits told Bailey. “We’re proposing to in January, due to financial reasons for the most part.”
Once staff reviews all the public input from in-person meetings and online surveys, there will be a final public hearing in October. The HART board will then vote in November whether to approve the changes.
The future of the 2018 transportation sales tax remains unknown. Florida Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments on the case in February, but have not yet issued an opinion. If it stays in place, nearly half of the revenue would be sent to HART. If it’s overturned, the agency will continue to evaluate cuts and other cost-saving options.