Last year, transit ridership decreased in almost every major city in the country, including Tampa and St. Petersburg. But two cities bucked the trend — Seattle and Houston, which posted 4.1 and 2.3 percent increases, respectively.
What makes the transit agencies of those two communities stand out is that they were also in the midst of redesigning their bus networks.
That’s something that the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) is now in the middle of doing in time for the beginning of the 2018 fiscal year, which starts in October.
“If you see fewer people using your services across the board, at some point, you have to ask yourself, ‘what’s going on with your business model? And how can we reboot?'” asks Katherine Eagan, the CEO for HART.
That reboot comes as HART deals with an imposing fiscal future. Earlier this year, the agency’s finance team estimated that to do everything the same in the fiscal year 2018 as they are doing this year would cost an additional $13 million dollars, something the cash-strapped agency doesn’t have.
So necessity being the mother of invention, HART is looking at overhauling their service — which means more express service.
Though the blueprint is in place, HART intends to host open houses for their riders over the next two months to get feedback on the changes from their riders.
“What we’re doing with service is going to be pretty transformational,” says Marco Sandusky, director of government and community relations with HART. “We’re shifting the way our network is set up to try to build up a higher frequency core grid-based network, and we realize that’s going to have an impact on people who use our service today.”
Sandusky says this will provide the riding public better transit options, but says it’s critical that the agency hears from riders about how their specific experience using transit have changed over time.
Eagan says that the changes will result in 80 percent of riders getting more frequent service with faster connections. Sandusky says that HART may go from having one particular route that runs every 15 minutes to four different bus routes that will have 15-minute frequencies.
Working with Tampa-based transportation consultant Tindale Oliver & Associates, HART officials say that now working on designing a grid based transit system. Officials say that will eliminate some routes (such as going from Brandon to Tampa International Airport) that can take more than two hours.
“Out route network looks like a bowl of spaghetti” admits Sandusky, who says the agency has done a lot to try to capture riders over the years, but at the expense of travel and travel times.” At the end of the day, straightening out the routes will help make travel times improve especially for some of those very long trips.”
The work on changing the bus network comes simultaneously with HART officials, led by Eagan, reviewing every service in the agency to look at where they can become more efficient. HART has been covering their own health insurance for the past five years, but they need that to change as costs continue to escalate. That means they could end up entering into an alliance with either Hillsborough County government or PSTA to cut down on those costs.
Other services, such as legal counsel and even how staffers literally count fare box revenues are being examined to see ways to cut costs.
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Seward will be presenting the fiscal year 2018 budget to HART’s board next Monday.