My experience using HART for Tampa’s AirFest

Boarding the Route 4 "shuttle" bus to the Tampa Bay AirFest. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012, March, 2014.
Boarding the Route 4 “shuttle” bus to the Tampa Bay AirFest. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012, March, 2014.

This past March, I had the opportunity to use the HART bus system during the Tampa Bay AirFest at MacDill Air Force Base. I specifically got to use the Route 4 “shuttle” service, which ran every 15 minutes on a modified route throughout the day on March 22nd and 23rd. Using HART during this event allowed me to escape the mounting traffic jams and parking issues that AirFest normally brings each year that it is held (there was no event held in 2002, 2012, and 2013).

In past years, I’ve ended up driving to the event because I lived relatively close to the base and was able to leave early enough to escape the midday traffic backups that turn Dale Mabry Highway into a sea of vehicles. This year was different because I didn’t want to deal with all of the traffic and parking hassles. By the time the base gates had opened for AirFest, there were already long lines of vehicles wanting to get in. As in previous years as well, the Dale Mabry Hwy gate was really the only point of egress, although the MacDill Ave gate did open to entry traffic for a time. I don’t think a lot of people knew about that though.

So instead of driving to the base, I parked my car at Britton Plaza, which has a shelter that serves HART routes 4, 19, 36, the South Tampa Flex route, and PSTA’s Route 100X. After securing my car, I walked up to the shelter, where a southbound bus to the base was waiting, along with a northbound bus that was heading back to downtown Tampa. I immediately noticed other people parking their cars and hopping aboard the bus as well. Britton Plaza’s parking lot can vary greatly depending on the day of the week, time of day, and whether it’s a busy shopping period (such as around holidays). From my observation, the lot had to be at about 75% capacity, and I’m sure a portion of vehicles were not parked there because people were shopping…this was the “unofficial” Park-N-Ride lot for AirFest.

Now Route 4, along with the South Tampa Flex, and Route 100X, typically run only on weekdays. However, when HART’s budget allows, Route 4 will be modified during the AirFest to run as a weekend “shuttle” with frequencies similar to the MetroRapid North-South Line. During this operation, some normal Route 4 stops are not served due to buses running a limited stop operation. There were two years, by which HART did not run the shuttle due to budgetary constraints; 2008 and 2011.

Knowing that exact change is required, I went to the ATM machine and had Publix break my large dollar bills before I boarded the bus. Having exact change, and having that change ready before boarding, is the most efficient way to use transit if paying with cash. This is because you’re not impeding the boarding process by having to dig through and pull out a wad of dollar bills or a handful of coins. If you have a ton of large bills, you may be out of luck because operators are not allowed to handle change.

Photo Credit: HARTride 2012, March, 2014.
On board one of HART’s  swanky new buses. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012, March, 2014.

Once aboard the bus (which by the way, was one of HART’s relatively new 2013-series Gillig Low Floor buses), I noticed a good amount of people already on board, with some coming from downtown. As I took my seat, I saw that a lot of people were still boarding, which was definitely a good sign that many within Hillsborough County had heeded the warnings of long traffic jams and decided to use the bus as an alternate method of getting to the AirFest! By the time the bus had left, it was near-standing room only for the entire trip!

Accounting for traffic entering the MacDill Ave gate, it took about 25 minutes to travel from Britton Plaza to Bayshore Blvd gate. During this portion of the trip, I was able to talk with a fellow passenger who became concerned that there may not be enough buses to keep the 15 minute frequency intact. I noted that while this may be the case, weekends typically don’t require that all buses be deployed at the same time. So if worst-case scenario things can be tweaked to run more efficiently.

I also mentioned about how HART has been losing buses due to limited funds, and that many improvements would require a referendum to be passed. She then brought up Greenlight Pinellas for a moment and how vital it is to Pinellas County. She hopes that Greenlight will be able to pass, and I agreed with her. Although PSTA has been fortunate to get funding to replace older buses, much of this funding is coming from federal sources that will soon run out. Once those funds run dry, PSTA will wind up in the same situation as HART, unless a referendum is passed.

When the HART bus reached the Bayshore gate, military police forces walked up and began to examine if there was anything suspicious. For a moment, everyone got up from their seats, thinking that an ID check would be required (it wasn’t…at least for the bus I was on). As I looked out the window, I noticed one service member using a device to scan the underside of the bus to make sure there were no explosives or other suspicious items hidden underneath. Another service member actually boarded the bus and was required to be on board for the entire duration that the particular bus was on the base. In years past, where HART ran the Route 4 “shuttle”, buses were not allowed on base and had to turn around at the gate. This year was different because buses were allowed to travel in a counter-clockwise pattern to a boarding area just northeast of Hangar 1.

Arriving at the AirFest event area. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012, March, 2014.
Arriving at the AirFest event area. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012, March, 2014.

Upon arrival at the boarding area, passengers were directed to follow a walkway that was fenced on either side by those barriers that you typically see at parades. The walkway led into the parking area, by which the event entrance was just to the left. As in past events since 2001, a tent was set up with airport-style security screening. However, as long as one did not bring prohibited items, there wasn’t really any problems. No lengthy lines either! All in all, I managed to spend a good two and half hours at the Tampa Bay AirFest, all the way through the USAF Thunderbirds doing their aerial performance. It was definitely quite a sight to see!

On my way back to the bus boarding area, I noticed that four HART buses had parked, all in a “lineup” formation. I figured that this was because the day was beginning to come to a close and that all inbound trips would be ending at 4pm, being that all buses from that point onward would only be running outbound trips. The bus ride back to Britton Plaza was also standing room only, including a lady with three children with her. It was definitely a wonderful experience to not only ride HART to and from AirFest, but to also see a good amount of riders taking advantage of the shuttle as well! If only the HART system was better funded, could they bring forth even more service and attract more riders.

Many buses were at or near standing room only. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012, March, 2014.
Many buses were at or near standing room only. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012, March, 2014.

With all of this said, I know some of you may be asking; why do I drive from A to B when I used to use transit so regularly? The reason is because there isn’t enough funding to be able to expand the HART system beyond current levels, which causes a huge inefficiency throughout the system. This is especially the case in unincorporated Hillsborough County, where transit services tend to be a lot more scarce. With the recent drop in funds caused by the recent recession, HART can no longer afford to purchase new buses outside of ones that are replacing outdated fleets.

In fact, HART can barely even keep up with replacing buses that have reached the ends of their useful lives. As I’ve mentioned earlier in this post, as well as in past posts, HART has been steadily losing buses since 2010 and will continue to do so unless they are able to obtain funding from other sources, or…a transit referendum, similar to Greenlight Pinellas, passes. Without a dedicated funding source for transit in place, recently talked about plans for improved bus service between downtown Tampa and Tampa International Airport, among many other aspirations, will never be able to materialize.

In my case, with Brandon and Riverview being underserved by transit, I can’t use transit to connect between these two areas, let alone being able to have an efficient connection between South Tampa and Brandon. This lack of transit connectivity really becomes problematic during evening and weekend hours, when I’m usually working. For instance, my workplace lies in an area with no transit routes. The closest bus line is Route 46, which only runs on weekdays and ends service after 8pm. To get to the closest bus stop is even a challenge, as one would have to walk over a mile to do so.

To close out this post, I would like to mention that as I was planning things out for this very post, I was contacted by HART’s Public Information Officer in regards to this very topic. I was very privileged to be able to share my transit experiences with her, and you may be seeing my comments in an upcoming A Community With HART newsletter!

Have a great week!

HARTride 2012.