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Hillsborough transit unknowns: COVID and Congress

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority’s proposed $162 million budget could be changing.
LUIS SANTANA   |   Times
Bus riders get off a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority  bus at the University Area Transit Center in 2019. Monday, the agency's board of directors got their first look at the proposed budget for the coming year.
LUIS SANTANA | Times Bus riders get off a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus at the University Area Transit Center in 2019. Monday, the agency's board of directors got their first look at the proposed budget for the coming year. [ LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times (2019) ]
Published Aug. 2

TAMPA — Hillsborough’s transit authority patched a hole in its current budget Monday and went to work reviewing $162 million worth of planned spending for next year amid lingering concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority saw a 50 percent decline in expected fares due to the pandemic, said Joanne Caceres, director of budgets and grants, which contributed to a $7.3 million decrease in projected revenue for the current budget.

Ridership in 2020 was 9 million people, but that is projected to drop to just 7.2 million riders when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

To make up the difference, the board of directors moved $4 million from reserves to balance its operations for the rest of the fiscal year. The overall budget was boosted by the receipt of nearly $40 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

“We could have been in real, real, real deep trouble without that,” said Temple Terrace Council member Gil Schisler, who urged a cautious approach to the 2022 budget so the agency can “weather what could be another COVID storm.”

The proposed budget for 2022 includes a $105.6 million for operations — nearly 70 percent of which covers salaries, benefits and health care costs for 836 employees — and $57 million for capital expenses.

A little over half of the operating budget is financed by Hillsborough County property owners who are assessed a tax of one-half mil, or 50 cents, for every $1,000 of property value. The proposed budget reflected a tax roll growth of more than 8 percent. It also includes $15.7 million in federal stimulus aid.

Hillsborough Commissioner Kimberly Overman said the tentative budget could be changing with potential new dollars from a federal infrastructure bill being considered by Congress, but lost revenue from COVID-19.

“We still have a pandemic. We will still deal with the fact that ridership will fall, some as a consequence of people being afraid and the fact that we already have businesses having to shut down their doors because their employees are testing positive. It’s going to be a little bit longer road than we want,” Overman said.

Commissioner Pat Kemp lauded the agency’s fiscal outlook compared to prior years and its mission to “right-size” its services.

“We were promising too much in the past with the revenue that we had,” she said.

Related: Hillsborough is changing a number of its bus routes

In January, the authority cut eight regular and flex routes, reduced frequency on five mores and adjusted the stops and directions of 16 others to save a projected $2.5 million annually. In June the agency changed 17 route schedules, including reducing what had been 30-minute service to hourly runs.

Related: Redlined Tampa bus routes leave riders waiting or walking

The board of directors applauded after CEO Adelee Le Grand said the agency hadn’t missed a route since June 23.

Riders previously had criticized the agency for what it refers to as redlining — calling off an entire run along a route because of a driver shortage or other cause.

Board members credited Le Grand for the more reliable service by boosting employee morale through retroactive pay increases and shepherding through the route changes.

The proposed budget projects 8.7 million riders in the coming year, most of whom will ride the fixed-route system. That’s down significantly from 13.1 million riders in 2019.

Public hearings on the proposed budget are scheduled for Sept. 13 and 27.