TAMPA — Motivated by harsh financial realities, Hillsborough transit board members approved a plan Monday that will eliminate nearly 20 percent of bus routes despite emotional pleas from riders who rely on them.
The new bus routes, branded as Mission Max, will take effect on Oct. 8.
Tampa Bay has one of the worst transit systems in the country, connecting people to fewer jobs with fewer buses running less often than systems serving communities of similar size, according to an analysis earlier this year by the Tampa Bay Times.
The new system should improve service for about 80 percent of riders, giving them shorter, more direct routes that run more frequently, according to Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority staff.
But HART board members heard Monday from people representing the remaining 20 percent for whom life will become much more challenging. For those with disabilities, older people or anyone who can't afford to own a car, HART buses and vans often are the only reliable and affordable option.
"This room is full of people who are not as blessed as you are and can jump in the car and go get something," said Juanelle Harlow, who, along with her daughter, relies on bus service.
Not one of HART's 13 board members relies on the bus service for work, errands or social trips. Only a few board members have ridden more than a handful of times.
Many of those who asked the board to reconsider the plan spoke passionately, their voices cracking with emotion as they explained how dependent they are on the bus in order to work, buy food or interact with others outside their homes.
"Please don't take my HART Plus van away from me," rider Michael Borders said. "You take that away from me, I'll die. Simple as that."
Borders, who said he has no friends or family to help, said he has no other way to get to the store. Lenora Starke echoed his concerns, saying the cuts eliminate the route that takes her to the VA hospital where she has volunteered for the past 13 years.
"It's the most important thing I have left in my life to do," said Starke, who lives in an apartment complex for those 55 years and older. "I have no other way to get out.
County Commissioner Stacy White attempted to postpone Monday's vote until HART's September meeting in order to incorporate more suggestions from those with disabilities and from service members at MacDill Air Force Base. White asked fellow HART board members to reconsider, weighing an additional $2 million that the Hillsborough County Commission might allocate to bus service.
"We need more time and more outreach," White said. "We owe it to the people to do our due diligence."
White's motion to postpone the vote, seconded by County Commissioner Sandy Murman, did not pass.
The HART board approved the new route system 12-1, with White dissenting.
HART staff held more than 40 public meetings this summer to solicit feedback on the changes. Some of those suggestions from riders were built into the new plan, including keeping the Brandon Flex route for another six months while HART improves its HyperLink service in that area. HyperLink is one HART solution for getting people to and from bus stops, for $3 a trip.
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Other changes based on rider input include additional service north of Fletcher Avenue, extending Route 19 to the Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind, and alterations to routes serving north and south Dale Mabry Highway, Busch Boulevard, Progress Village and other areas.
The cuts and revised network are a response to declining ridership and rising expenses — a national trend that's exacerbated by HART's shoestring budget.
Tampa Bay's transit spending per capita is half of San Antonio's, a third of Denver's and a quarter of Pittsburgh's. At $57 per person, it's comparable to Sheboygan, Wis., and Macon, Ga.Hillsborough County spends $20 million less on buses than the transit agency for Cincinnati, Ohio, and $60 million less than the agency for Detroit, even though both serve similar populations.
The result is a strained network that can't afford to provide service to a county that's the size of Rhode Island.
Despite the minimal spending, the bus agency has a budget deficit of more than $6 million. The new system will save HART $5.8 million annually in operating costs.
"This is a network that is smart, it's a grid based system, and it provides a solid foundation for future growth," said Marco Sandusky, HART's director of government and community relations.
Several board members, including Pat Kemp, Les Miller and Mickey Jacob, said Monday's vote — which pitted financial realities against community needs — was further motivation to continue trying to find more ways to increase HART's funding
"How do we continue to increase our revenue so we can increase the service and not have to face these kinds of decisions again?" Jacob asked.
HART receives less tax support than similar agencies in most major cities, meaning it's hit harder by the decrease in fare box revenue.
Any attempts to raise substantial money for the bus agency — such as increasing the sales tax to pay for transportation projects — have failed, often due to lack of political support. Voters shot down a 2010 referendum that would pay for a light rail system and more buses.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.