Dump the Pump pushes for transit over cars on both sides of Tampa Bay

06/20/13 Janelle Irwin
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Thursday is national Dump the Pump day meant to draw attention to ways local governments can get people out of their cars and into multi-modal transit. Transportation agencies on both sides of Tampa Bay were getting the message out. At the Town N’ Country Senior Service Center, Lisa Bacot, the executive director for the Florida Public Transportation Association, touted the benefits of riding the bus to retirees.

“As you age, a lot of people plan for retirement from work, but they don’t plan for retirement from transportation. Studies show that we will outlive our ability to drive by 7-10 years. So you need to know what options are out there when that time comes; we all need to know.”

Making that shift early could save seniors, many of whom lived on fixed incomes, save thousands of dollars each year. Bacot said the average cost of owning a car is about $9,000, while riding the bus instead would only cost a little over $300. She added, people who ride the bus are also healthier.

“And one of the reasons is, North Americans who use transit walk three times as much as those who just drive their car. So just by taking a trip right up the road here, you’re doing a good thing for your body and for yourself and helping you to live longer.”

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority is also working on boosting bus ridership through educational outreach programs. Mark Sheppard teaches people, mostly those with mental disabilities, how to use the county’s bus system to gain independence. He told the room full of 50 senior citizens they could also enroll in his program.

“But most of what we do as travel trainers is work one on one with an individual, making them mobile independent. Our service is not only free, we give you a free bus pass to use that day. It only costs you one thing to be a trainee of ours; your time.”

Hillsborough attempted to add rail to their transit system in 2010, but voters failed a referendum that would have increased sales tax. Since then though, HART has implemented the area’s first Bus Rapid Transit system, called Metro Rapid. It doesn’t have dedicated lanes like some forms of BRT, but it does have traffic signal prioritization and more frequent running times. The county is also pushing ridership by creating a mobile app called Next Stop that gives riders up to the minute arrival information. HART CEO Philip Hale said they are also looking into eventually adding WiFi to buses to attract younger people.

“So, what we’re trying to do is try to find what’s the most effective way of doing it. So, we’re going to ask the request for information – you send it out to all the vendors – and they’ll come back and give us suggestions – what’s the best way to do it – and we take it to the next step and see if we’ll do an RFP, a Request for Proposal and move forward with installing WiFi.”

Meanwhile, in Pinellas County transit leaders are campaigning for a once cent sales tax increase to expand their transit. The plan would include light rail connections from downtown St. Pete to Clearwater through the Gateway business district in mid-county. It would also include expanded bus service in the county connecting to train stations. Peter Schorsch introduced the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board chair and CEO at a Tiger Bay luncheon in downtown.

“For Pinellas residents, the most important result from the 2014 elections won’t be whether Charlie Crist has unseated Rick Scott or the margin of victory for Bill Young. No, the issue on the 2014 ballot which may have the most significant impact for Pinellas County is whether to build an advanced transportation system featuring light rail and rapid bus system. To pass this referendum, supporters will have to do what those in Hillsborough County could not – convince voters to raise their own taxes in this era of austerity and budget cuts.”

The agency’s campaign is called Green Light Pinellas and focuses heavily on educating residents on the benefits of approving the tax referendum, focusing largely on economic development. Gregory Wilson, a Suncoast Tiger Bay past president, asked PSTA CEO Brad Miller why the transit agency wasn’t focusing on a more palatable bus rapid transit system instead of the hotly contested rail proposal.

“I know how good it can be, but I also know that it’s an election and it has to pass.”

“With transportation, it doesn’t really necessarily work like that. It’s not like a baby that grows up to be a train.”

But Miller added, Bus Rapid Transit is a part of the overall plan that would be funded through the referendum.

“Bus Rapid Transit systems which we have in our plan for our Central Avenue and US 19 and the major corridors do a very job of carrying ridership. What they don’t do and what the advisory committee that selected rail as the alternative do is generate economic development. Change the land use to transit oriented-development in the direct way that every place that has implemented a rail system has done so.”

Another argument likely to surface during PSTA’s push to gain voter approval of a tax hike is criticism that the agency is becoming insolvent. PSTA board chair Jeff Danner said the agency has managed to stave off fare box increases and cuts to service because ridership has steadily increased.

“All of our operating budget comes from ad valorem property taxes and everyone knows what’s happened to the ad valorem property tax base in the last few years – we’ve cut between $30 and 40 million out of our budget in the last four years and have been able to sustain the basic system we have and really the question is: is that what you want, the minimal system or is it time to vote for a better system.”

The PSTA transit proposal also includes plans to extend rail to Tampa across the Howard Frankland Bridge when it is replaced. That is expected to happen around 2025. Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe has said he wants to revive talks of another possible referendum in his county.

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Thanks Janelle!