TAMPA — Hillsborough County is getting a whole new bus network — one that is poised to cut nearly 20 percent of its current routes.
Pending public hearings and board review, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority will roll out 34 routes in October, down from the existing 41. Some of the routes will be new, some will stay the same and others will be truncated, altered or combined.
While the number of routes is shrinking, HART CEO Katharine Eagan said overall service should improve. The agency is increasing the frequency along many routes and also is straightening out some of the paths, so they're less winding and circuitous. The changes should reduce travel time for most riders and make the system more reliable.
"We're really trying to develop a smarter network," said Marco Sandusky, HART's director of government and community relations. "Are there going to be less routes? Yes. But this new network will afford better travel time, more direct trips and better frequency, in some instances."
Bus agencies across the country are seeing a decline in ridership. But for HART, the cause for concern is even greater. HART receives less tax support than similar agencies in most major cities, meaning it's hit harder by the decrease in fare box revenue. It's also struggling with the rising cost of health care, which will cost HART about $4 million more next year.
Even if HART didn't make any changes, it would cost the agency an additional $13 million to operate in the next fiscal year.
It's money the cash-strapped agency — which spends almost the same per person on transit as Sheboygan, Wis. — doesn't have.
While HART officials are focusing on the positives — they say about 80 percent of riders will see more frequent service and faster connections — there's no denying the motivation behind the change is one of fiscal necessity, if not desperation.
"If we don't change this budgetary footprint, we will run out of money," Eagan said. "We will shut our doors."
And because of its limited sources of funding — it's almost entirely dependent on property taxes — it doesn't have the protection of agencies in other cities that can tap into sales or gas tax revenue.
"It's a different universe than our peers in Dallas or Charlotte or elsewhere," Eagan said. "Other systems have been able to make investments we haven't been able to. We've had to be creative."
In this case, creative means stripping away routes with low ridership so the agency can afford to bulk up service on the routes with greater demand.
It also means redrawing the map and changing the focal points. As it stands now, the system is very centered on getting riders to downtown, Sandusky said. That will change with the new routes, which amp up connections to the airport, the University of South Florida area and Brandon.
A staff presentation described the current network as "thin, overextended." The new system will be more condensed and gridlike, Sandusky said. Many of the routes also will run more frequently, he said. For example, currently HART only operates one bus on 15-minute intervals. That route — the MetroRapid along Nebraska Avenue — will increase to every 12 minutes, while Routes 1, 12 and 34 — which run along Florida Avenue, 22nd Street and Hillsborough Avenue — will bump up to every 15 minutes from no more frequently than every 20 minutes.
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These increased and more streamlined routes come at a cost, and several others will be cut to make way. For example, Route 2, which also runs along Nebraska, will merge with MetroRapid, serving fewer stops but at a greater frequency. A quick scan of the two systems side by side shows gaps along the periphery of the county, such as in Town 'N Country, Carrollwood and southern Hillsborough.
The cuts don't stop with routes. Eagan said staff cuts are expected but did not say how many.
"It's not just looking at service, it's looking at how you do business internally," Eagan said. "I can't tell a taxpayer that I'm going to keep people employed here, but that they can't keep a bus route."
The agency is also evaluating what things it can outsource, such as legal services, and whether it can be more efficient in the way it handles payroll and collects and counts fare box revenue.
For the most part, the changes will come all at once. That means the community can expect a period of several harried days, if not weeks, as riders and drivers adjust to a new system.
Even those whose routes aren't being cut can expect to see changes: Their stop might get moved a couple of blocks away or the times on express routes might change.
"Disruption to a transit network is not the first place you want to go," Sandusky said. "So many people rely on and use our transit service. It's something we don't take lightly."
HART will hold a series of public meetings between mid June and mid July for people to give feedback on the proposed routes. There will be a public hearing on July 26, and then the staff will present the plan to the HART board at its August meeting.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.