Ignoring pleas by the public to not cut specific bus routes, including from the blind and disabled community, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Agency (HART) Monday approved a plan that could cut nearly 20 percent of its routes.
Called “Mission Max,” the plan goes into effect in October.
Facing a substantial reduction in revenue, HART officials worked over the past year on redesigning the county’s bus networks. The work involved input from the public, studying commuter patterns and getting assistance from transportation consultant Tindale Oliver & Associates.
In some cases, there will actually be an increase in service in terms of more frequency of certain lines, but the agency is eliminating seven routes, which led to impassioned cries from the public that those cuts could be devastating to those who absolutely depend on the bus to get to work, school or the doctor.
“When you remove the #57, you will be removing my ability to get to and from work,” said Temple Terrace resident Thomas Watson, adding that cutting that line will prevent many disabled people from getting dialysis, doctor’s appointments, and other essential functions.
“I’m asking you to reconsider because this is our livelihood and we already have enough on our plate,” Watson said.
“Are you all insane wanting to cut this route from St. Joe’s, the new hospital that just opened up?” asked Apollo Beach resident Courtlin Cooper.
“Your public is really upset with you because their lives depend on their ability to support themselves and get where they need to go to stay alive and feed themselves,” said Seminole Heights resident Kimberly Overman. “I’m not hearing that we’re actually fighting back on not having enough funding. I’m hearing that you’re doing a marvelous job with what you have.”
The notion that the agency has not responded to the community riled up HART CEO Katherine Eagan.
The agency held 40 different meetings, she noted, and took input from over a thousand people before creating the new bus network.
“The task of ensuring that folks have options has been herculean, and there is no one in this country, especially not a mid-sized transit agency, that has been able to pull together the options that we have been able to do,” Egan said.
HART did make such changes after the first public hearing on the proposed new schedule July 26, when a standing room crowd stuffed into the agency’s headquarters in Ybor City (which necessitated moving Monday’s meeting to the County Center).
Changes included putting back in routes a Brandon flex system for at least another six months.
The proposed system will save HART $5.8 million annually, and result in the reduction in their fleet in peak hours from 157 buses to 121.
Like transit agencies across the country, HART has seen a decline in ridership which has by itself cost the agency $2.5 million. Rising health care costs (which have grown by $4 million) and general liability claims have also contributed to the deficit.
“We do have to absorb those costs, and we have to figure out how to do that in [Fiscal Year 2018],” said HART CFO Jeff Seward earlier this year.
The agency is looking at health care costs rising tentatively by $4 million, as well as another $1 million increase in general liability claims.
“Mission Max is really about rationalizing the transit network in Hillsborough County,” said Marco Sandusky, HART’s director of government and community relations.
Board member and county commissioner Sandy Murman was able to attach an amendment to the vote approving the new system to include discussions with the Sunshine Line to ensure that no disabled riders are denied an opportunity to transit. The Sunshine Line provides door-to- door bus service to seniors and people with disabilities who qualify
Some riders who are blind also said they had been denied rides by cabbies who refuse to allow service dogs in their cab, which outraged several HART board members who wanted to penalize the offending cab company.
New service routes are scheduled to begin October 8.