Editorial: HART board members need to ride the bus more, like they want us to

Many people ride public transit in Hillsborough County, but not, for the most part, the 13 people on the board of directors of  Hillsborough Area Regional Transit. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA  |   Times]

Many people ride public transit in Hillsborough County, but not, for the most part, the 13 people on the board of directors of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Published Jul. 28, 2017

The people in charge of the public buses in Hillsborough County have sent a clear message that there's one segment of the local population to skip over as the system tries to lure more riders: them.

It is sad and hypocritical that members of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board of directors admit they seldom if ever ride the bus.

Sadder still, the answers they gave when questioned by Caitlin Johnston and Taylor Telford of the Tampa Bay Times reflect that the bus system holds little appeal for the broader segment of people like them — busy, successful professionals.

Perhaps they're to be forgiven.

As transportation writer Johnston has revealed in her reporting, mass transit in the Tampa Bay area is, by most measures, the worst among the nation's top 20 metro areas. We have far fewer buses here, 360 compared to 600 or more elsewhere, and we invest far less money in it. San Diego and Minneapolis/St. Paul, roughly the same size as Tampa Bay, each had at least three times the ridership in 2015.

And in general, it's not the HART board or its counterpart in Pinellas County that have stood in the way of efforts to pay for much-needed transit improvements.

But among all those working to improve transit in Hillsborough County, these 13 individuals — six of them elected representatives from local governments — should be the ones setting the example.

Plenty of people do take the bus. Ridership in the Tampa Bay area is estimated at 31 million a year. And every one of them has had to make adjustments in their work and personal lives in order to catch the bus when it comes by. They know that new routines can be established.

It's not too much to ask that those who run the system do the same. The signal HART board members send when they don't is that riding the bus is for someone else.

It's not for people "busy working on transit issues" — the head-scratcher of a response from transit proponent and County Commissioner Pat Kemp. It's not for people "bouncing all around the city" like consultant Richard McClain. It's not for people like penny-pinching engineer John Melendez, who pays just $10 extra each month for the flexibility of driving to work instead.

Some board members do ride once or twice a year. Others quit riding when a move or a route change made it inconvenient. Many at least feel guilty they don't do it more often. One, County Commissioner Stacy White, calls himself "an automobile person."

White has never found a reason to ride a HART bus and makes no apologies for it — a puzzling declaration from a man whose fast-growing south and east Hillsborough constituency is the most underserved when it comes to mass transit.

In his response, County Commissioner Les Miller — who also doesn't ride — shows more about what's wrong with this picture: "Does that affect the decisions I make or try to make for HART?" Miller asks. "No."

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His answer defies logic. HART board members would learn a great deal by riding the bus now and then.

They would see, for example, that many people ride because they have no other choice. That you'll draw a lot of eyeballs if you board in business attire. That no one complains when a trip takes a few extra minutes to accommodate someone in a wheelchair. That riders always pitch in to help a single mom trying to horse a stroller and young children aboard. And that low-paid drivers endure abuse and equipment failure with exceptional patience and grace.

The way HART board members view mass transit is consistent with surveys nationwide that show, time and again, people love the idea of it — as long as someone else is riding.

We should expect more from the people who have agreed to lead.

Whatever money becomes available for transit improvements in this car-driven region, much work remains to change minds about using it.

HART board members should grab a couple of singles for fare, consult HART's very helpful OneBusAway mobile app, and get down to it.