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As the transit agency falters, Hillsborough riders pay the price

The year 2022 saw controversy, staffing shortages and plenty of delays. Commuters fear: What’s next?
Passengers, including Celene Moody (far right), await their bus at the University Area Transit Center on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Tampa.
Passengers, including Celene Moody (far right), await their bus at the University Area Transit Center on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Tampa. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Jan. 12|Updated Jan. 16

Celene Moody sits at the bus stop, waiting.

Her commute is 1 hour and 45 minutes each day and requires rides on three separate buses to weave from Temple Terrace to Brandon. If Moody, 33, had a car, her 13-mile commute would take a half hour.

Moody is one of thousands of Hillsborough County residents who rely on public transit services — provided by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit — to get to work, the grocery store and just around town. While Moody uses the bus every day, she doesn’t know that the chief executive of HART is under investigation. She doesn’t know about the “rebranding” effort underway, which staff hope will boost the profile of public transit in the community. And she doesn’t know that agency’s teetering finances could soon be at a breaking point.

With the agency engulfed in controversy, staffing shortages and service interruptions, the sprawling county can seem as inaccessible as ever.

Moody’s long-winded journey home to Brandon begins on the No. 6, a route which has one of the highest average daily ridership rates and some of the lowest on-time performance scores.

But she likes the No. 6. Unlike many of the routes HART operates, it comes every 20 minutes on weekdays and every 30 minutes on weekends.

“I’ll take what I can get,” said Moody, who cleans houses for a living, while looking down N 56th Street for signs of a bus in the late afternoon sunshine Monday.

At an agency board meeting earlier that day, CEO Adelee Le Grand reiterated how improving the bus network’s on-time performance was a priority she’s been “consistently focused on” during her two-year tenure.

Last month, six of the agency’s 32 bus routes met the industry standard of being on-time at least 77% of the time, according to agency data. Four routes met the goal HART had previously set itself, of 80% on-time.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor (left) and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority CEO Adelee Le Grand (right) attend the first board meeting of the year at HART Headquarters on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Tampa.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor (left) and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority CEO Adelee Le Grand (right) attend the first board meeting of the year at HART Headquarters on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Tampa. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

A lack of reliability and frequency is a challenge common to U.S. city transit systems, not unique to Hillsborough. In Sun Belt cities, transit has always struggled to compete with the car. Nationwide, the bus started to lose ground decades ago as Americans bought vehicles, suburbanized and spread out. In Hillsborough County, coaxing drivers out of cars has been near-impossible when it can mean opting into delays and bare-bones routes.

Still, people here plan their lives around the only transit choice they have: the buses that edge along traffic-choked streets.

It’s not hard to find a packed bus in the county. Head to Florida Avenue in the late afternoon and you will spot people hauling groceries and students munching on snacks as the No. 1 lumbers south. Take the No. 30 to the airport and you will see baggage handlers and cleaning staff heading to work.

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Clamber aboard the No. 6, just as Moody does this Monday evening, joining many in uniforms as the bus continues its heave-and-sigh north and then west to Tampa’s University Transit Center, one of the network’s main interchanges.

From there Moody will catch another bus and head south. Then another and travel east, home.

The No. 6 pushes on, and she thinks of how she’d like to work more. Her boss sometimes asks her to come in earlier. But the bus doesn’t run any earlier, so she can’t.

She thinks about how she wishes people would be more patient with the buses, having too often witnessed cars cut in front and trucks block access to the curb to pick up passengers.

Passengers ride on a No. 6 Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Tampa.
Passengers ride on a No. 6 Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Tampa. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Hours before Moody boarded the No. 6 homebound, the board of the transit agency unanimously appointed a new chairperson: long-time transit advocate and Tampa City Councilperson Luis Viera.

“This is a very, very difficult time obviously for HART,” he said at the meeting. “I think that the number one thing that the public is looking for is transparency.”

The union representing hundreds of the transit agency’s employees in November called for the resignation of the CEO amid allegations of mismanagement. Those allegations are currently under external investigation.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times a few hours after his appointment, Viera added he wants to see improved on-time performance and better amenities at bus stops so riders can count on a more reliable and efficient journey.

But Viera, a lawyer raised in the Temple Terrace area, recognizes the agency faces a confidence crisis.

“The public needs to be able to trust us with their hard-earned money,” he said.

The churn among staff, lingering vacancies and sub-par route performance have left some fearful the agency is vulnerable to privatization, including Ruthie Reyes Burckard whose career in management at HART spanned almost two decades and 10 CEOs.

“The expectation was to try our best just to keep the ship afloat,” Reyes Burckard, who retired in 2021, said of her final months working at HART.

Viera will also have to navigate a board of directors more politically diverse than in recent years, with two conservative members elected to serve last year, including new vice-chairperson Michael Owen, a Republican county commissioner.

“I’m excited to work together. We can’t look at transit as a partisan issue,” said Viera, a self-described “big believer in congeniality.”

The agency is undergoing a rebranding effort, hiring a marketing firm to craft a new logo, color-pallet and advertising campaign to increase trust and awareness of its transit services. While surveying staff, the firm found that the “HART brand isn’t well known inside the community” and “non-riders do not know what services HART offers,” according to public records.

Councilman Luis Viera was elected as chairperson during the first Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board meeting of the year at HART Headquarters on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Tampa.
Councilman Luis Viera was elected as chairperson during the first Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board meeting of the year at HART Headquarters on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Tampa. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Beyond improving on-time performance, the agency faces other obstacles in boosting ridership. Hundreds of bus stops scattered across Hillsborough County don’t meet standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law passed more than three decades ago.

And many of stops are without shelter or seating, leaving passengers to bake in the Florida heat.

“We really, really have a desperate need to improve our shelters,” Hillsborough County Commissioner and former Board Chair Pat Kemp said Monday.

“Shelters are a critical issue,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor echoed.

An unreliable transportation system is both an economic drag and an emotional burden. For commuters, it can mean chaos and stress, lost wages and missed appointments.

A bus route can be a linchpin in the system of helping people living in affordable housing and working lower-wage jobs get to work and keep their jobs and housing.

At Tampa’s University Transit Center Monday afternoon, Sherry Kathleen Scott, 49, and Jonathan Reed Scott, 47, waited for the No. 6 southbound, wanting to reach downtown Tampa for a meeting. The couple are homeless; their belongings, they said, hidden in the woods nearby.

They are trying to find a job, a car and a home.

“None seem possible without the other,” Sherry said. In one hand she held a can of Mountain Dew and in the other, a single rose wrapped in cellophane — a gift from Jonathan.

They are trying to save for a truck, he said. At least then they will have somewhere to sleep and something to get around in, she added.

Sherry Kathleen Scott, 49, of Hillsborough county, rides a No. 6 Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Tampa.
Sherry Kathleen Scott, 49, of Hillsborough county, rides a No. 6 Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Tampa. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

When Moody pulls into the University Transit Center later that evening she hops off the No. 6 and walks across the plaza to join those waiting in the fading light for the No. 12 route.

As she waits she recounts the frustration of the center’s bathrooms closing in July and not reopening for 18 weeks. Still, bathrooms at other interchanges remain closed, which can pose a problem when she is with her children who have to go in between route changes, sometimes missing the next bus.

Soon she will be home with them. First, though, she has two more buses to catch.