Off to the wild blue yonder again…
In this third episode of Journeys Afar, I will begin showcasing my recent trip to the west coast – San Francisco, CA to be exact! While I didn’t think that this particular trip would happen so soon, I’m glad that I was able to embark on it when I did – as it was almost 20 years ago that I made my last visit to this part of The Golden State.
Like my 2017 New York City excursion, I aimed to utilize as much public transportation avenues as possible – including during my departure from & arrival back to Tampa. While I originally planned on using the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) network to connect to Tampa International Airport the day of my departure from Tampa, I needed to tend to some tasks in Tampa beforehand, so I wound up departing from my family’s residence there instead of my residence in St. Pete.
On the flip side, it was a good thing to begin my journey in Tampa because I was able to follow a very similar path to TPA Airport as I had done back in 2017 when I visited NYC. Thus, I’ll be able to do a comparison of my bus rides on board the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) network back then versus this time around. For those of you who aren’t aware, HART underwent a massive route optimization project in late 2017 called Mission MAX & it dramatically changed how many of HART’s routes operate today.
For my HART bus journey, I made sure to have exact change available for a $4.00 1-Day HARTride pass the day prior to. I chose to postpone purchasing any Flamingo Fares products on their app until I returned because I would otherwise lose out on a week of usage. However, once the full Flamingo Fares tap-&-go card program rolls out (hopefully next year), you’ll have the option of purchasing a reloadable card so that you don’t have to worry about wasting a transit pass if you happen to go out of town.
Now, like my NYC trip, I made sure to select my flights very carefully so that I could utilize transit to get to & from the airport without risking missing the check-in window if my buses fell behind. Additionally, because Mission MAX caused some less busy segments to be separated off their busier counterparts, I was no longer able to leave for the airport as early in the morning as I would have liked. One example of the changes made during the Mission MAX route optimization project is described in next section.
Before I move on however, I want to point out that unlike my NYC trip, I did carry a bit more baggage – so I already had in mind that because of the amount of clothing that I would need to bring, that I will need to use my rolling suitcase. That suitcase would then need to be checked-in at the airport. As I will describe later though, there is a convenient option in many cases that can allow you to check-in quickly & save you some time if you’re coming off the bus.
South Tampa bus service was significantly changed due to Mission MAX. Route 4, which had limited ridership, was completely eliminated, while lesser used segments of the 19 & 36 south of Britton Plaza were split off onto other routes. The 17 designation, which was once used for a north-south local route between MacDill Air Force Base & the old Tampa Bay Center Mall via MacDill Ave during the 90s, was reused for the former 19 segment that served Manhattan Ave between Port Tampa City & Britton Plaza. The WestShore Blvd branch of the 19, meanwhile, was also eliminated due to limited ridership. The segment of the 36 south of Britton was integrated into the cross-county 360 Limted Express route that runs between MacDill & the JC Handly Park-N-Ride complex in Bloomingdale.
While HART kept the overall span of service for Route 19 the same (with exception to the adjustment of early morning & early evening trips, the elimination of trips that ran through 12-midnight, & the addition of an earlier morning trip on weekends), the 17’s service span is from 6:00am until 10:00pm, with buses running hourly on all service days. This meant that the earliest bus I could take from the Port Tampa City area would leave at about 6:25am. Because of some final tasks that I needed to take care of prior to my departure, I opted to take the 7:25am departure, which arrived at Britton Plaza on time at 7:46am. Traffic on Manhattan Ave & Euclid Ave was fairly light, which contributed to an on-time arrival.
Even though I had about 15 minutes before my Route 36 bus arrived, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t venture off to Publix & then risk missing my connection, so I decided to stay put at the on-site bus shelter. During my wait, I encountered one of the HART Flex cutaway vans & several other HART buses that were running on the 19 or 360LX. I also spotted one of the PSTA buses that was assigned to the 100X. It’s been quite a while since PSTA retired its 2003-series MCI coaches that were originally used for the 100X & the 300X. Even though no replacements were ever purchased, the buses on the 300X have been modified to include on-board luggage racks – similar to the ones used on board airport-bound buses in NYC.
One of the fleet changes that I haven’t quite discussed in detail when it comes to the HART network is the small fleet of six 2014-series 40′ Gillig Low Floor diesel buses. These buses were acquired in mid 2018 from what used to be TranStar out of Orlando, FL.
TranStar did a lot of charter bus business throughout Central Florida, but probably its biggest contract was with Walt Disney World – where they operated cast member shuttles throughout the parks. I learned in late 2017 that TranStar lost the opportunity to continue its contract when Disney decided to operate the shuttles through another avenue. TranStar declined & went out of business shortly thereafter, possibly due in part to the lost business. I’m sure the company racked up a lot of debt as well by which it could not get rid of.
The 2014 diesel buses are similar to those of HART’s former 2004 diesels in the sense that they do not posses “frameless” windows & use similar seating. While these buses did have to have some added TLC upon their arrival – #’s 1402 through 1405 have run pretty well. #1406 was recently sidelined due to a blown transmission & #1401 has yet to enter revenue service.
Despite a slightly late departure (scheduled time was 8:00am, but the operator pulled up to the platform at 8:03am), the bus arrived at the intersection of Dale Mabry Hwy @ Kennedy Blvd on time (at 8:14am). Once again though, traffic was relatively light so that contributed to an on-time arrival.
In regards to Mission MAX, as I mentioned earlier, the 360LX took over the portion of the 36 that ran south of Britton Plaza. This meant that the Dale Mabry Hwy corridor south of the plaza suffered a major reduction in the span of service. Prior to the reshuffling, the first outbound 36 trip to Carrollwood from MacDill AFB was 5:30am, with the first bus to MacDill leaving Britton as early as about 5:45am at one time.
Now, the first 360LX round trip leaves Britton Plaza for MacDill at 6:55am, arriving at the Kingfisher St Burger King at 7:30am, then arriving at Britton at 7:45am to head to Brandon/Bloomingdale. Also, the 360 operates hourly all week (whereas the 36 runs every 30 minutes on weekdays with hourly weekend service), with no service north of Britton on Sundays (thus the first Sunday departure to MacDill is at 6:00am).
One last note; with the MAX changes, the 19, 33, & 36 all interline on weekends. Interlined bus & rail routes are common across transit agencies & occur when two or more bus routes are set up in a manner by which assigned buses change into one another’s routes at a common terminating point instead of simply turning around & reversing direction on their respective individual routes. So a bus starting out at the Marion Transit Center as a 19, will become a 36 at Britton Plaza, then will become a 33 at the Fletcher Ave @ Dale Mabry Hwy transfer point. That bus will then terminate at the University Area Transit Center (as the 33 does not serve the Hidden River Park-N-Ride Lot on weekends), then reverse course back to Downtown Tampa via South Tampa & Carrollwood. I generally dislike interlined bus routes because if a bus runs behind schedule on one route, it’s run on all three routes in this case will be detrimentally impacted.
While my bus rides have gone well up until this point, I knew to expect delays due to it still being rush hour. I exited # 1404 & crossed Kennedy Blvd quickly so that I could snap the above photos. Afterwards, I decided to head east, instead of west, to the westbound Route 30 stop on Kennedy Blvd by Sterling St. When I went to NYC, I used the westbound stop by Church St. However, being that the two stops are about the same distance from the intersection of Kennedy & Dale Mabry, I thought to just go ahead & use the Sterling stop so that I would not have to cross Dale Mabry.
While waiting for # 1026, I noticed that the wait time was increasing due to a delay along the route in downtown Tampa. Knowing that my flight was not until 11:42am, with boarding call commencing at 11:12am, I had plenty of time to make it to the airport if the bus broke down or something. Fortunately, it did not.
However, the bus did arrive about 6 minutes late (scheduled arrival was 8:26am, but the actual arrival was 8:32am), so this meant that the airport arrival was about 8:45am, instead of the scheduled 8:38am. Upon arrival, I immediately headed into the Rental Car Center complex & took the elevator to the main level where the counters & SkyConnect station are located.
The overall routing of the 30 has changed quite dramatically over the past two years. With Mission MAX, the segment between Tampa International Airport & the Northwest Transfer Center in Town-N-Country was separated, leaving the 30 to serve between the airport & the Marion Transit Center in Downtown Tampa only. Frequencies were kept at 30 minutes all week, with overall span of service remaining unchanged.
Initially, the cross-county Route 60LX made runs between Brandon & NWTC, taking over Route 30’s northern segment. Due to customer feedback, the 60LX was truncated to the airport & has since only operated between the airport & Brandon (with Sunday service only serving MTC & the airport). The segment between the airport & NWTC is now served by Route 35, which has 30-minute weekday frequency & hourly weekend service. The 60LX by comparison, operates hourly all week.
The second major change to Route 30 was made just this past summer, with buses traversing the WestShore/Cypress Point portion of Cypress St & serving the Social Security Administration office along the State Rd 60 frontage road in both directions. This change was done to help restore some of the service lost when Route 10 was eliminated during MAX.
So when I blogged about my 2017 NYC trip, the TPA Airport Rental Car Center & SkyConnect were not yet finished, so I rode the old Route 30 to the first floor, north (Red) side arrivals drive to get off at the airport terminal stop. Since the opening of both the Rental Car Center & its adjoining public bus hub, along with SkyConnect, a total of 6 bus routes serve TPA Airport – instead of just HART Route 30 as it was before. Today, you can catch HART Routes 30, 32, 35, 60LX, & 275LX to the airport during all days of the week. On weekdays, you can also take PSTA Route 300X to the hub.
So remember at the beginning of the post where I mentioned that I would discuss an easy way to check in your bags at TPA Airport while saving time? Well here it is! Remote Bag Check! You can find this area at the southern end of the main level of the Rental Car Center, tucked between the elevator banks to the bus hub & the rental car counters (facing northward towards the SkyConnect station).
While this service is primarily geared towards those who are renting cars at the airport, it does wonders for public transit users as well. In many cases, you can check into your flight, print your boarding passes, pay any applicable bag fees, print your luggage tags, & bring your bags over to the check-in scales to be weighed & then transported onto a special conveyor that whisks your checked luggage straight to the main terminal, then your respective airside concourse for screening & loading onto the plane – all in one convenient location!
Now…let me caution you, because I did say many cases. First off, only domestic flights can be checked in at this location, & secondly, only selected airlines allow for such remote check-in. So if you fall outside of this category, then you’ll need to take the SkyConnect train to the main terminal & then take the escalators to Level 2 for check-in. However, for those who do fall into this category, Remote Bag Check at the Rental Car Center saves you the time & hassle of going down to Level 2 in the main terminal for check-in. It certainly did for me! Once I was completely checked in & dropped off my rolling suitcase, I grabbed my carry-on bags & immediately proceeded for the SkyConnect train to the main terminal.
In addition to the Rental Car Center & SkyConnect, many other vast improvements have been made at the airport. This included a complete transformation of the Main Terminal’s 3rd level, which houses various shops, eateries, & the shuttle bays for the airside concourses. The airport also underwent a complete revamp of its dining & merchant options, which allows for a nice selection of both local & national brands.
Because I was able to use the Remote Bag Check option at the Rental Car Center, my time traveling through the main terminal was only about 10 minutes. I hopped off the SkyConnect train & proceeded to the escalators to Level 3. From there, I headed immediately to the Airside F shuttle bay – though I did pause for a moment at a nearby seating area to ensure that my boarding passes were secured. During my walk through the main terminal, it was definitely nice to see all of the shops & eateries completed. While I did want to grab something quick to snack on before my flight, I decided that the best option was to get over to Airside F & clear security first before I did so.
Upon arrival at Airside F, I quickly went through security (though I forgot to empty out my plastic water bottle that I brought from home, so the screener flagged me for that) & had a look around. Just after clearing security was a display honoring those in our military who earned the Medal of Honor. This display was sponsored by American Airlines, which happened to be the same airline that I embarked on for this trip (as well as my 2017 NYC trip).
The Medal of Honor display at the Airside F lobby area (after clearing security).
With the revamp of the shops & eateries, I was very delighted to see what had taken the place of what used to occupy parts of the main terminal & the airsides. For instance, the Airside F lobby area following security, used to house an express version of Chili’s & I believe some sort of newsstand. Now the spaces are home to local retailer Bay to Bay & The Cafe by Mise En Place, which is a scaled down version of its mainstay restaurant in Tampa (along the Grand Central area of Kennedy Blvd). What really caught my eye however was the presence of illy Caffe, an Itallian-based cafe serving illy-branded coffees, as well as pastries & sandwiches. I wound up grabbing a Spinach & Feta Cheese sandwich & an orange juice from the cafe before sitting down in the adjacent seating area – both of which were right next to Gate 78 (where I’d be boarding my flight at shortly).
By the time I had gotten my food & sat down, the time was 9:45am. I still had almost an hour & a half before my flight would board, so I took this time to consume my sandwich & juice, as well as surf the web & social media. TPA Airport has provided complimentary WiFi access for everyone who traverses the airport complex & for this, I’m very grateful for. Just a decade ago, if an airport that you were travelling through offered internet access – you likely had to pay for it. That’s the experience I had back in 2009 when I traveled through a couple different US airports while en-route to & from Belgium.
Two final notes before I wrap up this post. First, if you want to learn more about the different things that I’ve mentioned in this post, please feel free to select any of the links below.
Second, I’m going to point out that I purchased a bag online a few months ago that has been a vital part of my travels. The merchant is called ebags & the bag that I wound up purchasing is called the TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible. This bag is extremely convenient for airline travel as a carry-on item & has many convenient pockets for clothing, important documents (such as your passport), & even a laptop computer! I’ve used this bag several times during my intercounty bus travels, but this was my first time using it for airline travel. I will tell you right now, that this bag is absolutely awesome! I love it!
Be sure to check out their site routinely, as they do hold some good sales.