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  1. Transportation

Transit 'town hall' draws plenty of comments

Bus passenger Delwin Cole, left, talks with city council member Mike Suarez as U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor chats with Kelvin Allen, right, during the Transit Town Hall sponsored by HART Thursday. They were traveling to north Tampa on a MetroRapid bus. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

TAMPA — As the bus rumbled down Nebraska Avenue on Thursday, Kelvin Allen told U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor that he switches buses three times to get home from school most days.

Castor, D-Tampa, asked Allen, 25, to detail just how long and complicated the routes could get.

"He said it was a two- or three-hour trip to MacDill each day," Castor told Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority chief executive Katharine Eagan.

"You're a brave man," Eagan said. "That's a long trip."

Castor, Eagan and HART Chairman Mike Suarez talked with Allen and other bus riders to learn how costumers view bus service in light of federal efforts to pass a long-term transportation funding bill. Federal funding for transportation is set to expire May 31.

The bus "town hall" Thursday was part of Stand Up for Transportation Day, in which more than 350 groups nationwide hosted events to raise awareness about transportation and funding concerns.

HART chose to recognize the day in a way that seemed fitting: talking with residents while riding the MetroRapid route from downtown to the University of South Florida. It takes about 45 minutes to travel the 17.5-mile stretch, which customers say is a huge improvement over the regular blue buses whose routes can drag over multiple hours due to frequent stops.

"It's enlightening, and it's really helpful for me to be able to go back to Washington and speak up for the Tampa Bay community," Castor said.

She'll have plenty of stories to share.

Allen told Castor and Eagan how he relies on transit to get from school to work to training. Before the MetroRapid buses were available, he said the commute was even more tangled and time-consuming than it is now.

Delwin Cole said HART is a lifeline that allows him to pick up his blood pressure medication.

And Jeff Randall, who lives on Nebraska Avenue after previously living in Boston, said he has seen what a more developed transit system can do for a community.

Almost all riders said they had to switch buses once, if not more, to get where they're going. Eagan said HART would love to add additional routes and more frequent pickups, but doing so requires more money.

"That's why the transportation bill is so important, because the Congress has not done its job to provide a multiyear, long-term transportation plan," Castor said. "Instead, they've done little patches. … (Transit agencies) cannot plan for significant investments because they don't know if the funds are going to be there or not."

Federal dollars for mass transit come out of the Highway Trust Fund, which is funded by the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. That tax hasn't risen since 1993, said Lisa Bacot of the Florida Public Transportation Association.

But the gas tax is a dwindling resource as people buy more fuel-efficient cars or opt for electric vehicles, Castor said. Other solutions include a system in which people pay based on miles traveled. Pilot programs for that are in the works.

"There are a number of ways to pay for these things," Castor said. "We've got to put the pressure on the Congress to act."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.

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