TAMPA — Old City Hall shone purple on the last Tuesday of July to commemorate the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But scattered across Tampa and surrounding Hillsborough County stand an untold number of bus stops that don’t meet standards set by the landmark legislation that affords people with disabilities the right to access all areas of public life, including public transportation.
As of 2019, there were 327 bus stops in Hillsborough that did not meet the 1990 law’s minimum accessibility standards: a 5-by-8-foot firm surface connecting to the curb. That’s about one in every eight bus stops, according to public records. Three years later, the extent of progress remains unclear. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, the agency responsible for upgrades, has not completed another internal bus stop study.
“The stops that are not compliant are under review to make them meet the standards,” said Kemly Green, the agency’s director of customer experience.
Hillsborough’s transportation planning agency is currently working with the transit authority on a more thorough, updated study, said HART spokesperson Frank Wyszynski. He could not provide a completion date.
More than 25 million Americans have a travel-limiting disability, and 3.6 million did not leave their homes because of them in 2018, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In Hillsborough, 14.8% of residents are over 65, per 2020 U.S. Census data. Eight percent of county residents under age 65 have a disability.
Hillsborough’s transit agency has long worked with city and county governments and the Florida Department of Transportation to incorporate bus stop improvements into their projects and prioritize improvements at stops with heavy use, Wyszynski said.
Still, even where improvements have been made, many stops lack walkable pathways, disability rights advocates and transit officials said.
Hazardous conditions, such as curb cuts that are damaged and sidewalks that are deteriorating or missing entirely, abound. In May, county commissioners approved $20 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to enhance Hillsborough’s sidewalk network.
“If the bus stop is not accessible, the bus is not accessible,” said Barb Page, a senior investigator at the statewide advocacy group Disability Rights Florida.
There have been numerous route changes since the 2019 study, so its findings should be reviewed with caution. But the data, coupled with conversations with accessibility and transportation officials, demonstrate persisting concerns.
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“Funding is our biggest issue,” said HART Project Manager DeWayne Brown, tasked with overseeing the agency’s 2,257 active stops.
Transportation facilities built before the Americans with Disabilities Act are exempt from its requirements.
According to the 2019 study, the route with the highest number of stops not meeting Americans with Disabilities Act standards was No. 1, which slices through the center of Tampa, connecting downtown’s Marion Transit Center to the University Area Transit Center by the University of South Florida. About a third of the route’s 122 stops failed to meet the standards.
Today, the inaccessibility of many of these stops persists, largely because the sidewalks along Florida Avenue, the route’s backbone, are narrower than the Americans with Disabilities Act requests, Green said.
Across the bay, the Pinellas transit authority has not completed a formal systemwide assessment of ADA accessibility, said agency spokesperson Stephanie Rank. “However, we do make sure that any modifications to existing stops or installation of amenities to our stops are fully ADA-compliant,” she added.
All Hillsborough buses have audible route and destination announcements, but no bus stops have any audible features for the visually impaired.
“The biggest barrier to independence is transportation,” said Sheryl Brown, president of Tampa’s Lighthouse for the Blind. She praised the commitment of Hillsborough’s transit agency to improving accessibility over recent years, but said challenges remain.
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority operates HARTPlus, a door-to-door shuttle service for people with disabilities who are unable to use the fixed bus routes, as the ADA requires. In February, the agency expanded the HARTPlus service area beyond the standard set by the Federal Transit Administration — three-quarters of a mile within fixed routes— to 1.5 miles. The agency also recently extended weekend service times.
But riders of the paratransit service must book in advance and it offers little flexibility, said Arizona Jenkins, vice chairperson of HART’s accessibility committee. Consequently, he said, many still rely on the fixed bus routes.
Jenkins, a 46-year-old Tampa resident with cerebral palsy, has dedicated decades to improving and expanding the county’s transportation networks. A few blocks from his house stands a string of bus stops that meet minimum ADA requirements but often feel anything but accessible, he said.
“When you’re in a wheelchair, you cannot drive on the grass. In places with no proper sidewalk, that just leaves the road,” he said.
Transit officials said while bus stop improvement requests can seem simple, solutions often involve collaboration between numerous agencies, navigating limited roadways and unexpected costs.
“There are a lot of moving pieces,” said HART Project Manager Dan Rodriguez.
Take stop 5099, which sits on the six-lane Lumsden Road, in front of the Brandon Centre South mall.
A few years ago, the agency received a photo of someone who uses a wheelchair trying to access the eastbound stop, a sign pole and patch of concrete floating amid an undulating stretch of grass.
During the improvement process, the transit agency had to contend with a busy county road and account for drainage patterns for surrounding shops and homes. More than $70,000 later, there is now a clear, flat pathway serving the stop.
“If you build improvements, more people will use it,” HART Project Manager DeWayne Brown said on a recent visit. Before the refurbishment, the stop was the 1,053rd most used. Two years later, in January 2022, it was ranked 336th. Later this year, a shelter will arrive, and riders will no longer have to wait exposed to rain or sun.
Less than a mile down the road, Brown and Rodriguez paid a visit to another stop on the same route.
“This has several issues,” Brown said. There was no shelter. There was no sidewalk. No shade and not much space for the bus to pull over.
HART’s efforts to make the agency’s stops safe and attractive spaces for all mean contending with roads that routinely have some of the highest pedestrian fatalities in the country, according to advocacy group Smart Growth America.
Next to the stop stands another pole in the ground. It reads: “Drive Safely in memory of Zanyah Moore-Langston,” a high school senior who attempted to cross the road, which was a mile from her home, in September, according to public records. A driver hit her, and she died in hospital a few weeks later, six days after her 17th birthday.
As Brown inspected the stop, a silver sedan pulled over. The driver opened her window. This can be a dangerous junction, she said. Please help.