TAMPA — HART, the agency that runs Hillsborough County’s bus system, is on track this year to break its fifth straight ridership record.
That milestone hasn’t quieted mass transit advocates who say the agency is outmoded, underfunded and an inadequate transportation system for a major metropolitan area in the 21st century.
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority covers a 1,000-square-mile county with 165 buses — a number that places HART 94th among 100 major metro areas in the United States. Fewer buses means fewer routes, less frequency and longer travel times from home to work, school or errands.
The system also has few of the smaller circulator buses that would improve links among the main routes. Because of those drawbacks, critics say, HART serves as largely a last resort for people who can’t afford cars or don’t drive.
“We’re really providing a social welfare service for people who don’t have cars,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who sits on HART’S governing board. “And perhaps the attitude was, ‘They don’t work so we give them a bare minimum system.’”
Sharpe is a leading proponent of modernizing the county’s transit system with an infusion of cash from a 1 cent sales tax hike. Most county political leaders are on board with the idea and plan to put the proposed tax before voters in 2016.
If it passes, the tax would generate $5 billion for the transit system over the next 30 years. That’s nearly double what the authority would get over the same period with its current $88 million annual budget.
So what might mass transit look like if HART’s budget doubled? Done right, local services might more closely resemble those in cities judged superior for mass transit.
Comparisons are difficult because metro areas can differ in size, population and density. And in some instances, HART already has adopted best practices in use nationwide — though it’s seldom among the first.
But a look at four metropolitan areas where riders and analysts give their systems high marks shows a common denominator that local transit advocates still are working toward — strong community, political and financial support.
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Sun Tran in Tucson, Arizona, was named the best transit system in the country in 1988 and 2005 by the American Public Transportation Association. In 2012, the Arizona Transportation Association named the agency the best transit system in the state.
The system is generating a buzz this month with the opening of a popular new streetcar line, Sun Link, using large, modern cars big enough to haul bikes and connecting the University of Arizona and downtown. The fare is $4 a day.
But as early as the 1980s, Tucson spearheaded use of off-street transit centers to relieve congestion. The Ronstadt Transfer Station in downtown Tucson was built in 1991, 10 years before HART opened its Marion Transit Center in downtown Tampa.
The city also was a leader in environmentally friendly buses, converting its first 35-foot bus to use both compressed natural gas and diesel fuel in 1987. It was one of the first such hybrids in the country. Later, the system opened a CNG fueling station next to the Ronstadt station.
HART purchased its first hybrid buses in 2004 and this year began converting its fleet to compressed natural gas.
Other innovations have included electronic fare boxes in 1996 that increase passenger revenue by 7 percent, an automated system in 1999 that allows the tracking of every Sun Tran vehicle, and digital video recorders for security in most buses in 2001.
HART put security cameras on its buses in 2008.
In 2006, Sun Tran became a truly regional system when voters approved a half-cent sales tax. The money allowed Sun Tran to start a shuttle system moving riders from the suburbs into downtown where they can connect with the larger system.
“It improved some of our services, our frequency and connected communities that didn’t have service,” said Kandi Young, spokeswoman for Sun Tran. “We have very good ridership.”
The city of Tucson accounts for most of the 993,000 people in Pima County — fewer than Hillsborough County’s 1.2 million. Yet Sun Tran has been logging around 20 million passenger trips a year since 2008. HART, on the other hand, is on track for a record 14.9 million passenger trips this year.
One reason for the disparity: Tucson has 252 buses, HART has 160.
“We have a lot of support from the city manager’s office and the mayor and council, who recognize the importance of transit in our community,” Young said.
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In Madison, Wisconsin, a technological breakthrough helped the city’s Metro Transit win the 2012 Outstanding Transit System Award.
A year earlier, the transit system launched a computer application developed by University of Wisconsin student Aleksandr Dobkin. The app, called BusRadar, allows users to track all of the city’s buses in real time, and to filter for different routes. HART has adopted a similar app, OneBusAway, developed at the University of Washington and now the subject of ongoing research at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research.
The Madison app spread quickly, especially among students at the university, and “ridership took off,” Metro Transit spokesman Mick Rusch said.
“We’ve seen articles at the national level that say people know the bus is coming and it takes some of the apprehension out of taking the bus,” Rusch said. “It’s just creating that comfort level that makes it even easier to ride the bus because you know it’s coming. You can see it on your app.”
Madison’s annual ridership in 2012 was 14.9 million, about the same as HART’s, though the Wisconsin city’s population is just 233,000 and surrounding Dane County is 503,000. The city has more than 200 buses, compared to HART’S 160.
Rusch points out that Madison benefits from student riders. Metro Transit boosts ridership through a special contract with the university that gives students a reduced rate. The agency has similar passes with reduced fares for area hospitals and small businesses.
HART has similar agreements with the University of South Florida and Hillsborough Community College. USF students can ride HART buses for free with student ID, and USF faculty and staff ride for 25 cents. Hillsborough Community College students get a 25 percent discount for 31-day passes on HART buses.
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Though Cleveland and surrounding Cuyahoga County are remarkably close to Tampa and Hillsborough County in population, the Midwestern city has a longer history of transit.
Cleveland’s first street railway, a horse-drawn streetcar on rails, began in 1859. The first commercial electric railway in the United States ran in Cleveland in the late 1800s. Cleveland had 425 miles of streetcar lines before the 20th century dawned.
Tampa’s first streetcar, a wood-burning engine that ran between downtown and Ybor City, started in operation in 1885. The city electrified and expanded its streetcars in the 1890s with ridership peaking in the 1920s. Streetcars gave way to buses after World War II.
“The city in many ways developed around those rail lines,” said Joe Calabrese, general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. “Some of the old streetcar routes developed into bus routes.”
In addition to its rail lines, Cleveland’s RTA runs 345 full-sized buses and 88 smaller vehicles. The core of the system is bus rapid transit, called HealthLine because of RTA’s naming rights partnerships with Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. The hospitals are the city’s largest employers and are located on the bus rapid transit’s Euclid Avenue route.
Bus rapid transit is faster than other buses because it has dedicated lanes and buses can change lights from red to green. The system also features precision docking and level boarding at elevated bus stops.
“It’s designed as you would design a light rail system and operates like a light rail system but with rubber-tired vehicles instead of steel wheels,” Calabrese said.
The big difference is the cost. Cleveland’s RTA spent $200 million to build the rapid bus system. A light rail system would have cost $1 billion over the same 9.2-mile route, Calabrese said.
About 4.8 million riders take the HealthLine yearly, according to RTA statistics. Travel time from one end to the other is 34 minutes. A recent study by an international group of transit experts deemed the Cleveland bus rapid transit the best return on investment of any public transportation project in North America, Calabrese said.
“Cleveland is very much like Tampa,” he said. “You need to look at what is important and not overbuild or overspend based on those numbers.”
Calabrese said Cleveland couldn’t have built the bus rapid transit or other major projects without a 1-cent sales tax voters approved in 1974. This year, the tax will generate $180 million.
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Voters in Phoenix and surrounding Maricopa County have consistently shown their support for mass transit through tax referendums starting in 1985. That year, county residents OK’d a half-cent sales tax that helped create the Regional Public Transportation Authority. The county residents extended the tax in 2004. During the same period, the cities of Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, Scottsdale, Glendale and Peoria all adopted voter-approved sales taxes that either partially or wholly support transit.
The result is that the Phoenix Valley Metro transit system has 856 buses covering its 507 square miles of service area. Valley Metro also began light rail operations in December 2008 with a 20-mile route. Seven light-rail extensions are planned or under construction, which will create a 60-mile rail system by 2034.
Valley Metro spokeswoman Susan Tierney said the inauguration of light rail service has actually boosted ridership on the system’s buses. The bevy of transit options convinced many people they could get rid of their cars or downsize to one vehicle, she said.
“They don’t compete; they work together,” Tierney said. “We just pulled a bunch of new riders, people who had never used mass transit.”
Ridership across the entire Valley Metro system, buses and trains, topped 73 million in 2013. Phoenix has a population of 1.5 million, while Maricopa County tops 3.8 million people.
HART is ready to move into the future if the agency “hits the Powerball,” as interim CEO Katharine Eagan jokingly referred to the windfall the tax hike would bring. Hillsborough County leaders will make a decision on the tax referendum later this year.
The additional money would speed up planning and implementation of six new MetroRapid bus lines. These buses, which have fewer stops and technology that allows the driver to turn red lights green but no dedicated lines like bus rapid transit, would link major population centers.
Also in HART’s plans is a network of circulator buses that can transport people from their neighborhoods to main bus lines.
“What people tell us is they want a transit system that is relevant to them,” Eagan said. “What does that mean? Frequency and not too many transfers. That’s what everybody talks about.”