In 2017, talk has been more than ever about the lack of transportation options in Hillsborough County and the greater Tampa Bay region.
The Board of Hillsborough County Commissioners is finally investing in improving roads and bridges to the tune of more than $800 million, with just one percent of those funds allocated toward public transit.
In an interview earlier this week with HART CEO Katharine Eagan and the board’s relatively new chairman, Les Miller, the two expressed their hopes and dreams for the agency in the coming year.
“I will tell you now that I am working with Miss Eagan and some attorneys about getting a dedicated funding source,” Miller during a speech at the agency’s Ybor City headquarters.
“This county is growing at 32,000-35,000 people a year, and we don’t want them all to have cars on the road, so we have to do something. Those people who go to work at that third shift in a hospital, they’ve gotta get home some sort of way. And we don’t have that availability of buses to get them there. We’ve gotta stop that. We’ve gotta have it there.”
Miller does appear to have allies on the board in his quest to find a dedicated revenue stream. Though the lack of adequate funds to improve the service is an old story, it got new legs when a Tampa Bay Times investigative report published last month said (among other unsavory factoids) Hillsborough spends $20 million less on buses than the city of Cincinnati, and $60 million less than in Detroit, though both areas serve similar populations.
Just before the BOCC was poised to vote on the $812 million plan last week, recently elected Commissioner Pat Kemp unveiled an alternative plan that would have reallocated approximately half of those funds towards public transit programs, including direct funding to HART. While the board rejected the proposal, several council members said that they would like to add elements of some of the transit initiatives that Kemp mentioned when they begin reviewing their two-year budget later this year.
“The timing wasn’t right,” Miller about why Kemp’s motion failed to get more support.
The Go Hillsborough half-cent sales tax proposal from 2016 would have been a huge boost for HART, locking in an annual infusion of $30 million a year for the next thirty years, a sum that Eagan can only fantasize about.
Like former Commissioner Kevin Beckner, Miller is convinced that if one of the four members of the board who dissented on placing Go Hillsborough on the ballot had gone the other way, the measure would have passed in last November’s election (the other board member who voted for the measure to be placed on the ballot was Ken Hagan).
Kemp has questioned how County Administrator Mike Merrill could be so emphatic in 2016 that there weren’t existing funds to pay for transit/transportation projects, and yet $800 million has been unearthed in early 2017 to do just that. Miller says it’s because of growth in county revenues, but cautions that it’s not certain that the county will continue to see those financial numbers increase enough over the next year to guarantee funding for an agency that solely relies on ad valorem taxes for its financing.
Eagan came to the agency in 2009 as Chief of Service Development, directing service planning and scheduling under former CEO David Armijo. She ultimately succeeded Philip Hale in the CEO seat in the fall of 2014. She says that she is enormously grateful if and when the agency receives one-time allotments, “because it allows us to take a step in a positive direction,” but is obviously hopeful that the aims of Miller and Kemp to get her agency regular funding from the county can come to fruition.
She also says she wants to “myth bust” the perception of the quantity of service that HART provides.
“We have excellent coverage where we have coverage,” she says matter of factly. “Three-quarters of our routes are half-hour or better; a quarter are at twenty minutes in rush hour. We don’t have anything out there that’s every two hours. We do have things that are hourly, one of those is our route from downtown to Dover to Strawberry Ridge. It’s one of our few routes that’s growing, and it’s hourly.” But she doesn’t have the ability to add another bus there, “because our fleet is capped where it’s at.”
That fleet consists of about 175 buses, far less than what the district should have to be able to adequately serve the needs of Hillsborough County.
Ridership surveys show that those using the product are relatively happy about it.
A survey done for HART by TransPro Consulting revealed that the percentage of customers who are “very satisfied” with HART’s service overall reached nearly 50 percent, with over 95 percent of all customers stating that service quality has improved or stayed the same over the past year.
Eagan wants to expand the agency’s HyperLINK pilot project currently operating in the University area of Tampa, Northdale and Brandon. A bill being sponsored by Tampa Republican Jackie Toledo (HB 4033) would provide $500,000 in funding to the program to downtown Tampa.
Tops on the list of Tallahassee asks is a $3 million request for financing for the AirPorter, a regional connector that would provide non-stop service every 15 minutes during rush hour on weekdays and weekends between downtown Tampa, Tampa International Airport, and St. Petersburg (It would run every 30 minutes on off-peak hours).
The much touted “Premium Transit Feasibility Study” continues, with the final product of that FDOT funded report due sometime in the late spring/early summer of 2018. Eagan says the agency needs to freshen or “true up” the data to identify the five top transit corridors “that would be the most productive” regarding development potential and jobs. She also says that she intends to get out and have more low-key conversations with community members about expanding the service.