TAMPA — Three months after the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority pared down its bus network to save money, riders are still concerned about safety, missed connections and losing routes that once took them to work and doctors' appointments.
"You say that you care," read one complaint from an unidentified rider. "I pay taxes and now my only transportation has been (taken) away from me and others that have no way of getting to work or to the store."
Mission Max, the complete overhaul of the county's bus system launched in October, was supposed to make riding the bus better for about 80 percent of riders, according to HART officials. A threadbare budget — one of the tightest in the country for an agency its size — motivated many of the decisions made.
But the result was that HART had to cut 20 percent of the county's bus routes, changing connections, times and schedules for most of HART's 43,000 patrons. About 1-in-5 riders didn't see any benefit from the changes.
The harshest impact fell on 4,300 of Hillsborough's most vulnerable residents — those depending on the bus because they have no other way to move around — who were left with longer, more complicated commutes.
"Obviously the changes have caused a lot of anguish and issues with our regular bus riders," HART board member and Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez said. "We need to figure out how do we deal with the people who still haven't adjusted to that new system."
TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: HILLSBOROUGH BUS SERVICE
HART officials are looking to the county commission to pay for $2.3 million worth of fixes in hopes of addressing some of the problems riders have experienced.
The Tampa Bay Times reviewed about 50 rider complaints and suggestions regarding the new routes filed with HART between Oct. 8 and Thursday — the first 88 days of the new routes. Those HART records do not identify who complained. But they document a system that has left people frustrated, concerned for their safety and with limited options.
Dozens reported late buses or out-of-sync routes that made it impossible to catch their connecting bus. Or when the bus did come, it was overcrowded, leaving them without a seat.
"I shouldn't have to leave this early and still get there late," one rider said. "My job is in jeopardy."
Another person reported that out-of-date bus signs were still in place. They also saw people, including an elderly woman, waiting at old stops for buses that would never come.
Several riders said they didn't feel safe now that some stops have changed, including a parent with kids anxious about the busy intersection at N 56th Street and E Sligh Avenue, and another rider who feels it's too dangerous to cross E Hillsborough Avenue to reach a bus stop for route 34.
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Others, especially those who identified as elderly or people with disabilities, felt cut off from necessary services or the ability to get out and interact with the world. One complained on behalf of the 165 senior residents living at Bayshore Presbyterian Apartments in South Tampa who were left without a bus route after the Route 4 was discontinued.
That rider was told the nearest stop is now 2.1 miles away at Britton Plaza.
"My powered wheelchair will not cover that distance," case number 46263 said. "There's not even sidewalks all the way to Britton Plaza."
Despite customer complaints, HART Chief Operating Officer Ruthie Reyes Burckard called Mission Max a success.
"Two months of data is a decent look how it kicked off, but it's not enough to gives us a really good idea for how it'll go the rest of the year," Burckard said. "It's just a baseline, and now we can start adjusting."
Suarez agreed, saying the agency will have a much better idea at the six month mark in May of what further adjustments should be made.
The agency's initial data shows that many routes benefited from the streamlined system and have seen ridership rise. Some of the most popular routes, including those that travel along busy roads such as E and W Hillsborough Avenue, N 56th Street and N 22nd Street have seen an increase of as many as 10,000 passenger trips from the previous year.
As expected, overall ridership has declined. It dropped by 10 percent, or more than 117,000 riders, from October 2016 to October 2017. November, the first full month Mission Max was in effect, saw a 14 percent decline in ridership from the previous year, dropping below 1 million rides for the month.
The ridership decline can be attributed, in part, to the loss of 14 of HART's previous 42 routes which were axed as part of Mission Max.
Still, HART is prepared to make some changes in February.
Hillsborough County Commissioners agreed last year to give $2.3 million to help the struggling transit agency address some of these concerns. Some of that money will provide service already outlined by HART staff as part of the network change, while the rest of it will address issues that arose when the network changes went into effect.
HART board members are set to approve that project list Monday, but are dependent on the approval of the county commission before those route additions can go into effect on Feb. 25.
Those include increasing the frequency on routes 6, 34, 35, and 56 so they run every 15 or 30 minutes, extending route 19 so it runs to Tampa General Hospital in lieu of riders needing to switch to a shuttle, adding additional trips on the 24LX which runs to MacDill Air Force Base and adding the 75LX South County Shopper Shuttle on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Hillsborough's streamlining of routes, stops and service was spurred by financial concerns. HART receives less funding per capita than almost all of its peer cities. Hillsborough County spent about $53 per person for its transit system, which is comparable with Sheboygan, Wisc., and Macon, Ga.
Transit supporters hope an increase in funding will allow the bus agency to provide better service to most of its customers.
Said Suarez: "It's going to be difficult to run a bus system as expansive as everyone wants with the money we have."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.