TAMPA — People can continue to catch free rides in downtown Tampa — at least until March — after Hillsborough County's transit agency voted Monday to take over the cost of the service from the Tampa Downtown Partnership.
The Downtowner, a free ride service within the urban core, launched in October 2016. The experience is similar to Uber and Lyft, allowing people to hail a ride through an app, though the trips must start and end within the downtown area. The option quickly gained popularity, with hopeful riders experiencing wait times of 45 minutes or longer.
RELATED STORY: Free shuttle launches in downtown Tampa
Organizers tweaked the offerings, eventually bringing the average wait time down to 15 minutes. About 23,000 people have taken more than half a million rides in the past three years. June alone saw about 13,500 trips.
But leaders at the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which created the service, said they can't continue to operate it. They petitioned the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority to take over the cost, with help from the Florida Department of Transportation.
The board on Monday approved the $568,000 expenditure for eight months of service, but is hoping to develop a more sustainable version of the program to keep it operating long term.
The new model could include creating set pick-up and drop-off locations, with the service operating more like a circulator as opposed to the point-to-point service offered by rideshares like Lyft. If riders did want to be dropped off or picked up at a specific location, they might have to pay a fee.
The goal is to drop the average cost per rider to less than $4.50.
Currently, each trip a rider takes costs about $5.50. That's about 60 cents less than the average cost per rider on one of the county's bus routes, according to a presentation from the agency's staff.
Though board members approved covering the full bill for the next eight months, they expect to be reimbursed by the state for half of the cost.
"I just inherently can't see why we should be subsidizing a micro-transit service in lieu of our regular bus route," board member and county commissioner Pat Kemp said. "I think we've seen exactly the points on these maps where a circulator could go and we could provide it for a lot less money to many more people."
RELATED STORY: Tampa expands free Downtowner electric shuttle service
Board member John Melendez was particularly interested in evaluating the data generated by each trip to see what stops were most popular, when people used the service most often and other strengths and weaknesses.
The five most popular drop-off locations are the Publix Supermarket on Bayshore Blvd, the University of Tampa, the Tampa Marriott Water Street, the Marion Transit Center and Armature Works. Board members were particularly encouraged to see Marion Transit Center, one of the agency's main bus hubs, on that list.
"The Downtowner is serving HART passengers for their first-mile, last-mile requirements," board member David Mechanik said.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.