Public transportation use up in Tampa Bay and the nation

03/13/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: psta, HART, APTA, transit, Transportation, bus rapid transit, BRT, rail, Greenlight Pinellas


PSTA spokesperson Bob Lasher says a new funding plan on the 2014 ballot will not only expand transportation services, it will help keep the agency solvent.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Transit agencies on both sides of Tampa Bay posted record ridership for the month of February. Bus rides in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties have continued to increase, mirroring a national trend of growing public transportation use. Bob Lasher, spokesperson for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, says many routes are running at capacity.

“Not just at rush hour, but during the middle portion of the day, we’re running buses that are having – we’re putting extra buses out because we can’t pick up additional passengers because they’re so full and that was really the heart of the Greenlight initiative going back years – a way to finally bolster this service and meet the demand we’re seeing.”

Greenlight Pinellas is a one penny sales tax referendum voters will decide on this November. The tax would replace a part of homeowner’s property taxes currently allocated to PSTA and would bring in about $130 million a year – about $100 million more than the transportation agency takes in now. The increase would not only fund things like increased bus service, bus rapid transit and a light rail corridor connecting Clearwater, St. Pete and mid-county’s Carillon business district, it would also help the agency remain solvent.

“Because the property tax is our main local source of funding and we’ve gone through the recession. We’re using reserves to keep from cutting additional service. Those reserves will be exhausted by 2017 and then we’re looking at about a 28% cut in service. So, what’s on the street now is going to be pared back by nearly 30%. That is going to affect an awful lot of people. It’s going to be less connections, less service, it’s going to be harder to get around.”

The numbers released Thursday show an ongoing trend of increasing ridership.

“What we’re seeing is still really strong ridership. It’s up just a bit, about 4/10 of a percent on the fixed bus routes. Some of the other transportation we have are demand response – the Jolly Trolley, the looper trollies – they were down just a little bit, but we set the second highest February ever and we missed the all time record by less than 1/10 of 1% and that was set in 2013, so the ridership is still very, very strong.”

And that’s not just happening in Pinellas. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, or HART, posted its highest weekday average bus ridership for February with as many as 59,000 riders in one day. HART spokesperson Sandra Morrison says ridership numbers have been steadily increasing since 2011.

“A lot of it has to do with, we’ve been doing a lot of route enhancements … also our Metro Rapid has a lot to do with it as well.”

HART has already implemented a type of bus rapid transit line called Metro Rapid that runs along one of the county’s busiest corridors – Nebraska and Fletcher Avenues. But the agency hasn’t made much progress in coming up with a plan to fund other improvements like passenger rail. Instead the agency is hoping to implement five new Metro Rapid lines within the next ten years.

“The one that a lot of people are talking about is the Metro Rapid East-West which would go from Temple Terrace to the airport or down Kennedy.”

Those projects are not yet funded. Increased need for transit has become apparent nationwide. According to a report released Monday by the American Public Transit Association, there were 10.7 billion public transportation trips taken nationwide – the highest number in nearly 60 years. Darnell Grisby is the director of research and policy for the association. He says the steady growth in ridership represents changing preferences.

“They want communities that are walkable and have transit choices. People want to be able to drive when they want to and take transit those other opportunities.”

The American Public Transit Association is hoping to get a bill passed in Washington that would authorize additional funding for transit projects in communities – something local agencies already rely on for everyday operational funding. Grisby says meeting transit needs in growing communities is good for economic growth.

“You get those new condominiums next to the station. You get walkable communities where you can actually go to the grocery store or restaurants. It also makes our companies more competitive globally; connects employers to employees. It’s really driving growth around the country.”

Heads of local agencies in both Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties hope to bridge their transit plans together – literally. The Greenlight Pinellas Plan includes an eventual continuation of rail along the Howard Frankland Bridge into Tampa. But during a luncheon last week, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor said she’d like to see the transit plan include South St. Petersburg where many residents live in poverty and are transportationally challenged. Lasher, from PSTA, said those individuals are being considered, though a rail line that far south in the county hasn’t yet been considered.

“Greenlight would be the first step and you have that one rail corridor, that backbone, and then all the bus surrounding it that will be built up for ten years is the foundation that will link the rest of the county one transfer away – just, you can get on a bus, you go right to that line. South St. Pete is going to see that too. South St. Pete is going to see a lot of increase in the bus service. It’s going to be very, very easy for someone to hop on a bus and immediately be on a new major, whether it’s a bus rapid transit corridor or the light rail corridor.”

The Greenlight referendum will be on Pinellas County voters’ ballots on November 4.


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The Truth is "New York City subways alone were responsible for more than 92 percent of the increase in transit ridership. For the rest of the country, they don’t show that Americans want more investments in transit at all."

So what if I live in South St. Pete and have a job at the Tyrone Mall? What is a train going to do for me? I don't want more taxes and I don't want a train.