The number of people who depend on HART’s Route 51X connecting Pasco County to downtown Tampa is dwindling. And so is the organization’s money.
So it’s probably no surprise to some of the remaining riders that officials with Hillsborough Area Regional Transit want to make some significant changes to the route, possibly removing the express route altogether. But at the very least, adding some local stops to finally bring such mass transit service to the New Tampa area.
“It is important as an agency that we consider the needs of the current riders,” HART interim chief operating officer Ruthie Reyes Burckard told concerned riders during a recent meeting at the New Tampa Library. “There is no transportation along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. We have been looking at this area, and are trying to get some service into this area, whether it’s local or some kind of hybrid option” of both express and local service.
Right now, the express bus takes workers from Pasco County and New Tampa into downtown Tampa early workday mornings, and returns them late in the afternoon. HART is looking at three options to change its service, all of them at least coming with a name change for the route: 51LX.
All the new options include local stops along Bruce B. Downs in places like County Line Road, Tampa Palms Boulevard, and even one route that would make its way to the University of South Florida. However, to add the university to the stops, HART would have to give up on its express service.
But that’s not the only change HART is considering. The transit company says it plans to close two park-and-ride lots in Pasco County that it’s paying nearly $24,000 a year to maintain at Victorious Life Church on Old Pasco Road, and CrossRoads Community United Methodist Church on County Line Road.
“Yes, we are considering closing both, but not until a suitable replacement is found,” HART spokeswoman Sandra Morrison told The Laker/Lutz News. “We are trying to find sites closer to Bruce B. Downs.”
But it’s not just 51X that will have park-and-rides replaced, HART wants to make adjustments to parking situations on other routes like 25LX in the Brandon area, and 47LX in SouthShore.
“We are always looking at more cost-effective locations for park-and-rides on all express routes,” Morrison said. “As a rule, private business and organizations provide parking as a public service at no cost.”
Paying for the Pasco lots eats up nearly half the $3 cash fare, Morrison said. The route carries about 17,000 passengers a year, but the lots average only about six cars per day.
One rider who attended a recent public hearing said HART should focus more on the quality of service it’s providing customers of the 51X to help stem declining ridership, not spend time changing the routes.
“The buses are just in horrible shape,” said Beth Derby from Heather Sound Drive. “We get rained on inside the bus. There is no air-conditioning, and we are lucky that we get downtown in time to get to work.”
Buses, she said, are typically running behind schedule, and riders miss connections at the Marion Transit Center in downtown Tampa.
“If this is your only mode of transportation into town, then you don’t have a choice,” Derby said. “But you know a lot of us do, and if it comes between taking a bus that risks my job because I can’t make it on time to work, then I’ll drive. I’m not going to lose my job because HART can’t get its act together.”
HART is struggling with funding, hampering its efforts to replace aging buses, said the organization’s senior manager of service planning Steven Feigenbaum. And some of the problems keeping the buses on schedule are actually outside of HART’s control.
“The synchronization of the (traffic) lights, and the engineering of the lights, are the responsibility with the city of Tampa,” Feigenbaum said. “I’ve been in contact with them time and time again to be more liberal on their timing, but we have not had a lot of luck.”
Without the lights being in sync to help move traffic, buses are getting stopped at multiple lights in a short road span, he said.
What changes, if any, will be made to Route 51X now depends on HART’s board of directors, a group of 13 people representing local and state governments. They are scheduled to hear the presentations on the various options in a September meeting, as well as input from riders of the service. While the board could implement changes as early as November, Feigenbaum said it’s more likely riders won’t see any changes to 51X until March at the earliest because of manpower shortages.
State Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa, attended HART’s public hearing on Route 51X earlier this month, and said he favored keeping the express route with local options.
“In this state, we are trying to increase mass transit, and (options) two and three (removing the express route) are going in the opposite direction,” Danish said. “A lot of people here already have been using it to go downtown, and it seems kind of strange to basically kill that bus route now.”
Published July 23, 2014
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