Bus ridership continues to grow in Pinellas and Hillsborough

11/11/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: transit, psta, HART, TBARTA, pinellas, Hillsborough, Bob Lasher, Philip Hale, Connect Tampa Bay, Greenlight Pinellas


HART CEO Philip Hale - 2011 stock photo

photo by Kate Bradshaw, WMNF News

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority posted an all time high ridership record last month and Pinellas wasn’t far behind. But Kevin Thurman with the pro-transit group Connect Tampa Bay said that trend isn’t anything new.

“We’ve been getting record ridership month after month after month from both PSTA and HART and one month of not building on the last October doesn’t create a trend, I guess is the best way to put it. The trend is clear that we have a significant amount of demand for transit.”

Hillsborough County gave nearly 1.4 million rides to transit users last month – a 1.8% increase over the same month last year. With nearly 1.3 million passenger rides last month, Pinellas just missed its all time record set last October. Bob Lasher, a spokesperson for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, attributes the near miss to a drop of 15,000 rides to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium which was closed for filming of the second Dolphin Tale movie.

“If we had had that kind of ridership – even close to it – we would have set an all time record for the month of October.”

Last week Clearwater voters approved a referendum to lease the current City Hall property to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in exchange for help building a new one. The deal allows aquarium officials to build a new facility on the downtown waterfront to make way for what they think will be troves of tourists itching for a peak at the Dolphin Tale star, Winter. But Lasher said it’s too soon to know what impact that will have on ridership.

“I would have to see the plans and the final details which I believe haven’t even been made yet.”

Heads of both transit agencies and Connect Tampa Bay’s Thurman are using the increases in ridership on both sides of Tampa Bay as evidence that transit systems need to be expanded.

“Over 60% of the trips on buses and 70% of the trips [in] cars are actually from people doing other things.”

Thurman said improvements to transit in Tampa Bay are especially important because the region has a higher than average cost of transportation.

“The median income person in Tampa Bay – a family – spends 33% of their income on transportation which is as much as they spend on housing.”

A 2014 Pinellas referendum would use a penny sales tax to fund light rail, bus rapid transit and other bus improvements. But Hillsborough doesn’t have a plan to piggyback on its plan if the referendum is approved. Thurman said the sprawling county is working on a plan and hopes there will be something on a ballot in 2015 or 2016.

“If Hillsborough County doesn’t move forward and holds back the region, I think it’ll cause major issue. Right now Hillsborough County is leading the recovery in Tampa Bay in creating jobs.”

But even though Hillsborough County doesn’t have a ballot initiative in the works, HART CEO Philip Hale said the agency is doing a lot to better serve transit users in Hillsborough.

“Unfortunately we can’t buy any more additional buses right now, but we’re putting the service in, late night service on route 2, 6 and route 30 which will run through midnight on Saturday and Sunday which is new late night service.”

Those routes include service to and from downtown via the Nebraska Avenue corridor, 56th Street and Town ‘N Country. Two routes will open Saturday service – 14 and 57 serving Armenia Avenue and Temple Terrace. Sunday service will be added to route 37 which runs through Brandon. The changes will take effect November 17th. The numbers released Monday showing increased ridership across the region isn’t new to Hillsborough. Hale said numbers have been climbing steadily since 2008.

“Our ridership growth has gone from roughly $10 million a year and we just closed out FY 2013 at $15 million trips per year and we’re doing it with less buses and doing it very cost effectively right now.”

The Hillsborough transit agency does have a long range plan it just submitted to the Florida legislature that includes six bus rapid transit routes. But that would require additional state or federal grants or some sort of financial move by the county – likely a sales tax hike similar to the referendum in Pinellas. But even without a referendum in the works, PSTA’s Lasher said Hillsborough and other counties in the region aren’t falling behind. He added there is a plan in the works to create a regional bus pass for riders crossing county lines.

“We’ve gotten some state grants for that. We’ve got bids out so that you won’t have to buy separate passes. You can buy one pass and ride all of the transit systems in the region.”

A regional board, called TBARTA handles connectivity throughout all Tampa Bay counties including Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota. A transit referendum is on the Polk ballot in 2014 similar to the initiative in Pinellas creating a penny sales tax while eliminating a portion of property taxes.

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