TAMPA - HART's inaugural MetroRapid bus service is gaining ridership, including a key target: passengers who previously drove between northeast Tampa and downtown, HART officials said Wednesday.
MetroRapid North-South is the county's first service with a version of Bus Rapid Transit, using conventional buses with distinctive green and silver branding that make limited stops and are equipped with technology to change traffic signals to help speed trips.
"MetroRapid has exceeded our early expectations on the north-south route," Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Chief Executive Officer Philip Hale said. "I believe a successful MetroRapid line can lead to additional transit modes for Hillsborough County."
MetroRapid drew about 1,000 riders a day when it began service in late May, when rides were free to get passengers accustomed to the route with faster schedules and fewer stops than Route 2, which MetroRapid partially supplants along Fletcher and Nebraska avenues into downtown.
During the month of June, including one week of free rides and three weeks with HART's standard $2 one-way fare, ridership has nearly doubled from the first four days of service in May to a daily average of 1,929 riders on the Monday-Friday schedules.
Ridership figures from July weren't available, but it appears the route continues to gain passengers, spokeswoman Sandra Morrison said.
"A new service takes two years to mature," she said, referring to time required to educate potential riders to new travel opportunities. "So far, MetroRapid is doing well and we'll have a better understanding at the six-month mark."
MetroRapid operates every 15 minutes from 5 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. and extends HART's service from the University Area Transit Center east to the Hidden River Park and Ride facility near Interstate 75.
Buses that serve the extended leg of the route on East Fletcher Avenue to Hidden River run every 30 minutes, compared with 15 minute headways between the university area and downtown.
HART planners hope that eventually some commuters who drive along Interstate 75 and Interstate 4 might find it more convenient to ride MetroRapid downtown.
For the time being, the focus is on building ridership along Nebraska, including getting passengers to understand how to best use MetroRapid. That includes some who might hop off at one of the Metro Rapid stations and walk to catch a Route 2 bus that might make a more convenient stop.
Robert Parker, who has been riding HART buses for two years, said MetroRapid saves 10 to 15 minutes over driving his customary route along Nebraska Avenue.
"It's stupid fast," said Parker before his MetroRapid ride Wednesday. "What's also different is these buses are brand new, compared with old rickety equipment with flat cushions. The air conditioner works well, The buses are clean. The drivers are knowledgeable."
Lee Brooks, who works at a downtown pizza restaurant, said MetroRapid trimmed his rush hour commute from North Tampa to 35 minutes from 45 minutes.
"The good thing is they run four times an hour," Brooks said as he got off the bus downtown. "I save on gas, I save on parking downtown."
MetroRapid averages around 19 mph on its 17.5 mile route.
Some in the transportation industry call HART's MetroRapid variant Bus Rapid Transit Lite. Unlike the most expensive and fastest Bus Rapid Transit systems worldwide, Tampa's buses do not have separate, bus-only lanes and travel along with regular highway traffic.
While it's up to the HART board to create a vision and goals for the county's transportation system, Hale said it would be sensible to build ridership with MetroRapid routes to better pave the way for more sophisticated and costly modes, such as light rail.