TAMPA — To ride the bus in Hillsborough County is to face the sun’s wrath. Of the 2,257 bus stops served by the local transit agency, fewer than a third have some kind of shade or rain shelter for those waiting.
And waiting is what many passengers do, craning their necks looking down the road for signs of a bus.
On Wednesday morning, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and City Council member Luis Viera rode route No. 12 to let passengers know change is coming: Last year, Castor secured $5 million in federal earmark funding for bus stop improvements across the county.
They were joined by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority interim CEO Scott Drainville, whose appointment came after the board suspended Adelee Le Grand with pay March 27, following a monthslong investigation that found a lack of effective leadership, poor organization morale, significant turnover and potential violation of state law.
Most of the federal money will fund the design and construction of 50 to 60 bus stops of 390 that need improvement, said agency spokesperson Frank Wyszynski. One million dollars will be funneled toward the purchase and installation of 40 shelters and another million will launch technology improvements, with real-time display information, braille and push-button “next bus” announcements at selected stops.
“Our bus stops have been screaming out for attention,” Castor said Wednesday as the No. 12, the fifth-most ridden route last month, rumbled on. “The community deserves so much better.”
With climate change threatening stronger storms and more heat waves in Florida, riders and transit advocates have long demanded that officials do something to provide cover from the elements. Last year was the hottest on record in Tampa.
“This is huge for us,” County Commissioner Pat Kemp said last month, celebrating the funding. “Way, way overdue.”
The specific stops receiving improvements have yet to be announced, but Wyszynski said the criteria used for funding distribution will include ridership statistics, existing shelter condition and site readiness.
On Wednesday, as Viera and Castor shook hands with riders who again and again told them they needed more frequent buses, Drainville pondered the agency he was now at the helm of.
A fiscal cliff looming next year, as operating costs are exceeding and growing at a faster rate than operating revenue. A revolving door of CEOs. Hundreds of bus stops that don’t meet federal accessibility standards.
“My priority is providing staff with stability,” he said as the bus curved into Ybor.
Hillsborough County is more populous than his native Rhode Island, and wedged into one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions, long strangled by congestion, slim public transit offerings and a poor track record of keeping pedestrians safe.
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In Tallahassee, state lawmakers are mulling a bill that would require the Florida Department of Transportation to study the dissolution of the agency.
“We’re open to talking about transparency. More than open. Glad to,” Viera told the Times aboard the bus Wednesday. “But let’s not disrupt our funding source, and let’s not disrupt locally controlled transit.”
He visited the state capital in late March to address state legislators’ concerns, calling the trip productive and reiterating that he was not presumptively viewing the proposed legislation as adversarial.
“I’m here to work with people and try to get stuff done,” Viera said on the bus. “If you care about the marginalized, you should care about mass transit.”
Among those also aboard was a woman on her way to the doctor’s office. Two children en route to school. A construction worker on the way to the grocery store, who would otherwise be at work but couldn’t find a way to travel to it that day.
In Tampa, the average household spends 53% of its income on housing and transportation costs, more than in cities from Denver to Dallas and New York to Nashville, Tennessee, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
Castor hopes that improved stop amenities won’t just offer dignity and comfort to those already riding the bus, but also entice new riders to give the service a go.
Improving public transit is an important step in responding to the affordability squeeze taking grip across Tampa Bay, she said before turning to the passenger in front of her.
“We are riding the bus with you today because we are going to build new shelters. We know it gets very hot.”
“Yes, yes,” the construction worker replied in Spanish. “Under the sun, it is suffocating.”