Bus ridership saw a sudden drop in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties last year, mirroring a nationwide trend.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority saw the steepest decline, dropping 10 percent. The agency provided about 1.5 million fewer passenger trips, falling to 13.4 million trips from fiscal year 2015 to 2016.
"Plummeted might be the right word," said PSTA CEO Brad Miller.
Across the bay, the slide was smaller but still substantial, with Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority ridership falling more than 6 percent to just over 14 million rides. That's nearly 1 million trips fewer than in fiscal year 2015.
It was a sudden drop for the Tampa Bay region after six straight years of growth. The two agencies last year logged the fewest passenger trips since 2011.
Transportation experts attribute this to a number of factors: lower gas prices, a still-rebounding economy and service cuts.
This national trend is especially noteworthy in a region that has heavily debated the costs and benefits of investing more in transit.
Transit advocates say not to fear: This is a blip on the radar and all other indicators show bus ridership will rebound and continue to grow in future years. But for those who have spent years opposing increased sales taxes to pay for bus and rail, this is more evidence for why the region should spend less on transit and focus more on roads.
There's little contesting the causes. Experts agree it's a combination of the drop in gas prices along with many transit agencies having to reduce routes and frequency during the Great Recession.
"When you have a combination of reduced gas prices, which makes driving more attractive, and service cuts that make some trips more difficult, that leads to shifts in use," said Darnell Grisby, director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation Association.
But Hillsborough County Tea Party co-founder Sharon Calvert, who opposed attempts to raise the sales tax to fund transit in 2010 and 2016, said those factors don't do enough to account for the fact that most people, when given the choice, don't want to take the bus.
"I'm sure the gas prices have something to do with it, but the bottom line is the choice riders, their choice is not taking the bus," she said. "They're driving."
She said the numbers also validate last year's decision by Hillsborough County commissioners to not put a sales-tax increase on the ballot in November. The 30-year measure would've increased the sales tax by half a penny to raise money for road maintenance, bike and pedestrian improvements, and transit options such as increased bus service and a light rail between downtown Tampa and the airport.
"We need to avoid going down these paths of spending billions of dollars on something that truly may become irrelevant in the not-too-distant future," Calvert said. "It would be better to make sure you remain flexible and nimble."
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Neither Miller nor HART CEO Katharine Eagan are concerned that the lower 2016 ridership numbers will hurt their chances of getting local, state and federal funding. Part of the reason is because most of the money HART is applying for isn't for traditional bus service, but instead for more innovative projects such as van service to help get people to and from bus stops, commuter service to the airport and a voucher system for people with disabilities.
"If we were asking for the same thing that was losing ridership, that would be a different situation," Eagan said. "That's one of the reasons why the things we're asking for are not the traditional solutions."
Instead, HART is asking for support to move innovative partnerships into new markets where officials think they're capturing more riders, such as van service in Brandon and 15-minute frequency between busy hubs such as Tampa International Airport, Westshore and downtown Tampa.
"If the portion of your market share is shrinking with the tool you're using, get another tool out there," Eagan said. "It's really basic economics."
Similarly, PSTA launched a partnership last week with Uber and taxis to provide rides to and from stops for $1. The program helps expand the agency's coverage at a fraction of the cost of running a traditional bus route. It's also investing in more frequent bus routes between downtown and the beach, which will run in their own lanes during rush hour.
"I know having more frequent bus service will generate additional riders because it will be more viable to more people," Miller said. "If the bus came every 10 minutes or even 5 minutes . . . we would have more riders and we would be shielded from some of these economic factors that right now we have no control over. But that would take more resources."
PSTA and HART already have smaller budgets than most major metros in the country. But lower ridership translates to less income from fare boxes, further exacerbating the problem.
Grisby said it's unfair to make decisions about funding and the worth of a system based on one year's ridership numbers. Before 2016, bus ridership had been rising steadily over the past decade. And, though it doesn't affect Tampa Bay, rail ridership has either stayed steady or increased nationwide.
"Transit ridership is much like the stock market: Overall, you will face an increase over time," Grisby said. "It's unfair to take a snapshot in time."
In fact, all major variables are pointing to longer-term gains in ridership, Grisby said, such as an increase in population, shifting demographics and new technologies that make getting a ride easier.
"I think public transportation around the country is becoming a more viable option for people because of new technology and these partnerships with companies like Uber," Grisby said. "It's definitely a time to make more investments in public transit."
But Calvert noted that, at least with these most recent numbers, bus ridership declined as Hillsborough's population continues to rise.
"You're talking about bus ridership going down while your population is going up," Calvert said. "So there's a total disconnect between a growing county and transit."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.