HART Mission MAX, what does it really mean?

Today is a big day for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) as they enact their Mission MAX system restructuring. While many of the changes that will be enacted this upcoming week are good for many customers, many others are left frustrated and worried because the bus routes that they once relied on are no longer available.

In this post, I am going to provide my personal views on the restructuring and voice my opinion in regards to the overall transit situation in Hillsborough County. Please keep in mind that I am not affiliated with any transit agency or government entity. Also before I begin, I want to thank the hardworking staff at HART for doing their best to educate everyone about the system restructuring and why it needs to be done. The HART staff is truly terrific and I applaud many members for what they do each day – even in the face of uncertain times. To any HART staff member who may be reading this post, my frustration is not on you all. It’s on the elected officials who refuse to further fund our transportation system and those who don’t think improving transit in Hillsborough matters to them.

When I began riding HART in 2006, I was like many customers in Hillsborough – without a car and without any other avenue to get to and from work or school. Unbeknownst to me at the time, HART underwent a system restructuring between 2003 and 2005 to straighten out several key routes and begin the transformation of the heavily hub-spoke system into more of a gridded network – the latter by which provides transfers at key intersections and highways instead of traditional transit hubs. When I read up on this restructuring, I found that many customers were upset because several routes were eliminated and others were realigned – causing them to worry about whether they would be able to get to their destination.

In 2007, Florida’s property tax revenues declined sharply due to state mandated budget cuts. Because HART’s primary source of revenue is property taxes, the agency was forced to make cuts in the system to close what would have otherwise been a budgetary deficit. Routes 7 & 41 were among several routes that were changed during this time. Route 7’s Citrus Park/Egypt Lake segment was reduced from 30-minute frequency to hourly service on weekdays and an unproductive section of Route 41 west of Himes Ave was eliminated. These reductions impacted me because the Route 7 trips going to the Hillsborough Community College Dale Mabry Campus became irregular – with buses serving the campus on a 20/40-minute headway instead of a 30-minute headway. Often times, I would just walk along Tampa Bay Blvd from the campus and catch a Route 36 bus from Himes Ave, because I no longer wanted to wait for a Route 7 bus.

TBO.com Archive: HART Proposes Cutting 3 Routes, Adjusting Service. 

TBO.com Archive: HART To Scale Back Service.

TBO.com Archive: HART Proposes Ending 2 Routes, Changing 16 Others. 

TBO.com Archive: HART OKs Bus Route Changes, Eliminates 2 Runs

For the next roughly 10 years, HART did all it could to maintain existing levels of service while gradually expanding higher demand routes. This was by no means an easy task, but they did okay with the limited budget that they had for several years. While I was happy to see that HART was working as hard as it could to make its system better, I was also upset at the various elected officials who did not show that they really cared about bringing more robust transit options to Tampa Bay. In 2009, a sales tax referendum effort – called Moving Hillsborough Forward – was placed onto the November, 2010 ballot. This plan aimed to greatly expand HART bus service and bring light rail corridors to the county. However, many voters weren’t well educated about what the initiative would bring to them – especially those in outlying areas of the county. To make matters more complicated, we saw the rise of the so-called “Tea Party Movement”, where many fiscal conservatives felt that they were being taxed too much and demanded limited government involvement. These two factors, along with the usual political messes, effectively derailed the Moving Hillsborough Forward initiative, and the ballot measure thus failed on Election Day.

In 2015, a second attempt was made to bring a sales tax initiative to Hillsborough voters – called Go Hillsborough. This plan was similar to that of the 2010 initiative, but included a broader range of improvements to the transportation network – including roadway repairs. Many voters were unfortunately still unconvinced that the referendum would do anything for them, and Tea Party activists were quick to pounce on every and any opportunity to derail the measure. Ultimately, the Hillsborough County Commission decided not to place Go Hillsborough onto the November, 2016 ballot and instead opted for a roads-only “money pot” that would place a certain portion of the county’s budget into fixing deteriorating roadways. This plan was very controversial because many believe the money set aside would be blown off on constructing new thoroughfares instead of improving and repairing the ones we have. Furthermore, many transportation advocates like myself – are extremely concerned the such funds would be automatically directed to match local funding needed to allow the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to construct controversial variable toll lanes along the region’s interstate highways.

Tampa Bay Times Opinion: They play politics while transportation goes nowhere.

Tampa Bay Times Article: New 2024 Howard Frankland plan: 8-lane bridge with bike path.

In 2016, HART realized that it was coming to a crossroads. It’s budget was continuing to shrink and its network could no longer sustain itself in the same manner that it has been for the past decade. Tough choices would need to be made over the next decade to position the agency for a balanced budget and future expansion on scarce resources. As overall transit ridership across the nation began to drop and fears were raised that the Trump Administration would slash federal transit funding, HART began to re-evaluate its entire network to see where ridership patterns and demand were, and examine which routes could be kept and which ones would have to be eliminated. I always feared that this day would come because of the failed efforts to better fund transit in Hillsborough, as well as all of the “politics as usual” happening on the local, state, and federal levels. However, how such cuts would be enacted was what really worried me. Would HART enact cuts across the board, keeping most of its routes but reducing frequency? Would the agency have to enact another fare hike (last one was in 2012)? How will people get to where the need to go? These were all questions that I was asking myself as HART began to unveil Mission MAX.

Tampa Bay Times Article: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here’s why.

When the initial plans for Mission MAX were unveiled to the public, I became deeply concerned about how the new HART bus system would be shaped. I provided much feedback to HART staff, as did many others who relied on the system. Even though I no longer reside in Hillsborough, I still use HART at times when I do visit the county and enjoy being able to get from A to B without consuming tons of gas and adding further wear and tear on my vehicle. As the final plans for Mission MAX were taking shape, I felt compelled to attend the public hearing on July 26, 2017 and voicing my opinion on the system restructuring. I addressed the HART board by mentioning how hard it will be for many customers to get around Hillsborough if they no longer have a bus route that they can catch. I also took aim at the elected officials who sit on the board who have refused to better fund transit, without being overly harsh (I kept my comments to an assertive level). To close out my speaking time, I stated that it was basically discrimination to allow FDOT to blast away $6+ billion on the controversial toll lanes – thinking that’s the “only” way to dramatically improve transit in Hillsborough – because the lanes will greatly cater to those who are wealthy and Hillsborough has a huge middle and low income population who would never use those lanes.

Tampa Bay Times Article: HART bus service will improve for most riders, but some Hillsborough areas will lose routes altogether. 

Despite massive outcry from the riding public and even civic leaders who were concerned that the outreach didn’t go far enough, HART approved the Mission MAX restructuring and made some final modifications to the plan before its implementation. While those who reside in the urban core of Hillsborough will be able to enjoy a faster and more direct bus ride, many others are now wondering what options they even have left to get to and from. I’m also very concerned that this is not the end of the restructuring process, and that further changes will have to be made due to the push by many electeds to allow the DOT to build the toll lanes. My biggest concern now is that HART may one day soon, have to follow Miami-Dade County’s decision to contract out lower ridership routes that weren’t eliminated, to a private operator. Many transit riders in Miami are furious at their elected officials for “bait and switch” after having a referendum pass in 2002 that would bring more funds for transit improvements, only to see transit services now being reduced. Among the changes recently made in Miami-Dade, several bus routes were contracted out to Limousine of South Florida, which now operates these routes with cutaway vans. I truly believe that while contracting out one or two routes may not be so bad, anything really beyond five routes begins to pose problems for the long term because the private operator may not be held to the same standards as the transit agency itself. I’ve also heard many complaints from transit customers out in California that when their transit services were contracted out – service got worse and customer satisfaction declined.

Tampa Bay Times Article: Depend on a HART bus to get around? Life could get harder.

It will be interesting to see where HART goes from here. It’s the first day of Mission MAX…will everything go smoothly? Or will we see fierce backlash? I guess it really depends who you talk to – someone who will enjoy that faster and more direct bus ride, versus someone who can no longer access the bus system.

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