Can’t believe it’s the end of 2019 already!
In what will be my final post for 2019, I’m going to take a few minutes to reflect back on what happened during the course of the year – both personal happenings in the sense of my transit adventures, as well as some local happenings here in the Tampa Bay Region.
You may have noticed that I haven’t really talked about the All for Transportation referendum measure that was passed by Hillsborough County voters back in November of 2018. This is because shortly after the elections, two parties filed legal challenges against respective parties – including the county. The filing parties have basically alleged that the measure was passed illegally because how specific elements are structured within the measure violate state law. I’m not a legal expert, so I can’t go into the nitty-gritty details, however many news articles have been published about the saga, so you can search those up and get up to speed that way if you wish.
In short though, the legal cases against the measure are awaiting to be heard by the Florida Supreme Court & will be decided (at last check) February, 2020. I’m really hoping for an outcome that upholds the measure because Hillsborough County needs better transportation – and like…right now!
While the usage & expansion of public transportation isn’t necessarily a silver bullet in combating climate change, it certainly does help when coupled with other changes – such as the overall reduction in use of fossil fuels. During the past year or so, a group called Extinction Rebellion has been advocating for all levels of government across the globe to get their act together on combating climate change – or else, we as a the human race will one day (sooner than later) face mass extinction. It’s truly a scary thought when you think about the impacts that climate change is already having on our planet. However, it’s even more scary to think about how some people out there – including some of our elected leaders in Washington, D.C., don’t even believe that climate change is actually a thing.
During the course of April & May of 2019, both Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) & the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) introduced new buses to their fleets – a combined 19 units (10 for HART & 9 for PSTA). PSTA continues to largely order diesel-electric hybrid Gillig buses (either 35′ or 40′), while HART continues to order CNG Gilligs (40′). While PSTA has already been testing a small fleet of battery electric buses (2 in service, with 4 more on order for late 2020/early 2021), HART hasn’t necessarily made that leap just yet – though there is a push for the agency to begin a pilot project by 2021.
Regardless of propulsion though, the new buses are able to replace aging diesel buses that span as old as 2001 & 2002. PSTA’s oldest fleet is now from 2005, while HART’s oldest fleet dates back to 2006. In the coming years, the hope is for HART to completely replenish its fleet by 2025 so that the oldest bus running is not exceeding 10 years in age. PSTA on the other hand will have a tougher time with any such aim due to its limited resources & the fact that its 2006 bus order was the largest ever for the mid 2000s – totaling 48 buses (though 2 have been retired previously).
For 2019, I had three different opportunities to travel out of town (one of which was out of state). The first trip was to Jacksonville, FL for primarily a family gathering/event, though I also spent some time exploring the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) bus system. This visit actually marked my third visit to River City since August of 2018 & my seventh overall visit to the region (though my first four visits weren’t focused on public transit at all & took place prior to 2005).
During my travels along the JTA system, I was able to experience both the First Coast Flyer Blue & Red Lines (Routes 107 & 109 respectively). The First Coast Flyer is a lightened version of Bus Rapid Transit (similar to HART’s MetroRapid, but with less stops) which first opened up in late 2015 with the Green Line (Route 102). The Blue Line followed in late 2016, then the Red Line in late 2019. The final currently planned corridor – the Orange Line (route number is not known at this time), is slated to open in late 2020.
2019 unfortunately brought upon several incidents across the nation by which transit agency employees were physically assaulted. In the Tampa area alone, one HART bus operator was stabbed & killed while on the job, while another – several months later – was also stabbed, but survived. These such incidents have echoed numerous calls from transit operators & their respective unions to force upon critical changes to their respective transit agencies – such as the installation of plexiglass shields within the operator’s area on board transit buses. These incidents also spurred HART, PSTA, & several other agencies to inform customers about the importance of using their transit systems while exercising due respect to each other & agency staff.
Every year for the past few years now, PSTA has partnered with the St. Pete Pride organization as their official public transportation partner – providing special shuttle service to & from the St. Pete Pride Parade, & even having a specially wrapped bus roll down the parade route! It’s always great to see public transit agencies take part in such great events – especially those that support our wide & diverse communities.
Earlier this year, Tampa International Airport introduced its All Access program, which allows non-ticketed patrons to experience the revamped lineup of shops & eateries at the airside concourses. The airport has been undergoing a massive transformation over the past decade, but especially during the course of the past five years, & what better way to allow everyone to experience the full array of what the airport now has to offer than to provide this wonderful program! I’ve been able to execute two such trips to the airport just to have lunch there (my first visit was to Airside C in July, followed by Airside E in December). To learn more about All Access & to book a Saturday reservation, please visit the airport’s website.
Speaking of revamps, Walt Disney World in Orlando has been undergoing its own transportation revamp – from introducing new buses (pictured above), to overhauling the appearance of their monorail trains, to opening a new gondola system (the Skyliner). These changes will make it easier & more appealing for park guests to get around the various on-site properties. Additionally, there’s been a lot of speculation that the current aging fleet of monorail trains will be replaced in 2020. Let’s see if that holds true…
And jumping off from Disney now, one change that occurred sometime back in 2017 was Walt Disney World not renewing its contract with TranStar, one of the many charter bus companies that have done business in the metro Orlando region. While it is likely that the loss of the contract heavily contributed to the company’s demise, it also opened the door to HART being able to acquire a few of their 2014-series buses for use in their system. So far, five out of six 40′ Gillig low floor diesel buses have gone into revenue service.
One last thing to note that involves Disney – there’s been a lot of developments regarding the semi-high speed intercity rail line that is gradually materializing here in Florida. Brightline – which is now known as Virgin Rail USA since Virgin head honco Sir Richard Branson announced back in late 2018 that the company would have a large stake in the rail line’s future – is gradually making its way to Orlando International Airport. Stops are already in operation in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, & West Palm Beach – with additional stops planned in South Florida, as well as along the WPB to Orlando leg.
During the course of 2019, it was announced that Tampa could see an extension sooner than later. However, nothing concrete has come out of this, other than the revelation that state interests in previously planned toll lane projects are conflicting with any possibility of an extension towards Tampa. What is concrete though is that Virgin is seriously discussing with Disney in regards to a stop on or near their property to get guests arriving in from Miami an additional option to get to the park. In my personal opinion, I think the Disney stop will most certainly happen, while any segment between Disney & Tampa will be pushed back in favor of bringing trains to Jacksonville & eventually Atlanta, GA & Charlotte, NC. Virgin has also taken over the former XpressWest project that will link Las Vegas to Los Angeles by 2030.
In another example of public transit making a difference in our diverse communities, PSTA partnered with Feeding Tampa Bay to deploy a mobile food pantry at the agency’s facility in northern St. Pete. Since many of PSTA’s riders live at or below the poverty line, having access to food pantries often mean the difference between having a meal during the day & not. For the first event in July, riders lined up as early as 6am to get one complimentary box of food – which includes fresh bread, fruits, & veggies. The second event in December was equally a success, & there are plans for another in around March or April of 2020 as a result.
While on the subject of partnerships, PSTA partnered with Greyhound earlier this fall to allow them to use one of their transfer hubs to board & de-board buses. The facility chosen was the Pinellas Park Transit Center, which serves PSTA routes 11, 34, 52, 52LX, 74, & 75. The facility also serves as a Direct Connect stop for participating taxis & ride share companies to fill in the first mile, last mile gap between a customer’s origin & destination points.
In addition to being able to use the facility to load & unload customers, Greyhound is also able to use one of the two customer service windows to serve its customers. Greyhound began staffing the window in December & I’ve seen it busy during the morning just prior to the first couple of AM buses pulling in. Such partnerships allow Greyhound to trim down its inventory of aging facilities that it no longer sees fit to operate, while providing opportunities for its customers to easily interconnect with localized transit options to get them to their final destination.
My second out-of-town trip was by far THE highlight of 2019, being able to visit the San Francisco Bay Area & experience their wide array of transit services! I was able to utilize the BART rail network, as well as the Caltrain Commuter Rail line, the MUNI bus & rail systems, & the AC Transit & SamTrans bus systems. Additionally, I photographed buses in a few other jurisdictions, including Sausalito & San Jose.
Of course, my visit wasn’t entirely about transit. I was also able to spend time with my transit enthusiast friends, as well as family that resided throughout the NorCal region. In the midst of it all, I was reminded of the impact of the devastating wildfires that have been plaguing parts of the state during the past few years. In fact, a few friends & relatives have been directly impacted by the sporadic power shutoffs that were enacted to supposedly help prevent fires from starting due to debris coming in contact with live power lines during high wind events.
Throughout 2019, I was able to take several leisurely adventures along the HART & PSTA systems – from the gulf coast beaches to the Shoppes of Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel, being able to use transit to get to a variety of destinations allows me to cut down on my car dependence & experience places that I would otherwise miss during a car drive. I think my most memorable leisurely bus ride was taking the Suncoast Beach Trolley to visit my friend & his family in Reddington Beach in November (Black Friday). I really loved that!
Last, but certainly not least, was my trip to Orlando for a family event, followed by spending the remainder of the weekend in Daytona Beach & surrounding areas. This third & final out-of-town trip for 2019 actually marked the fourth time that I made a stop to Daytona to experience the Votran bus system (my previous visits involving the Votran system comprised of two visits in 2015, followed by a visit in 2017), & marked by seventh stop to the area overall (my first visit was with family in 1995. To my knowledge, Votran didn’t even run late night service Monday through Saturday during that time).
What will 2020 bring?
It’s hard to say at the moment what 2020 will bring. One thing is for sure though, the Florida Supreme Court’s decision on whether the All for Transportation measure is valid will no doubt determine where public transit in Hillsborough County will go. There’s also a ton of unknowns regarding the Brightline/Virgin rail line that is being expanded into Orlando. We should both matters further unfold during the first quarter of 2020, & once the determinations are made, I will certainly do my best to break down what’s next for the Tampa Bay region & beyond.
Moving away from this uncertainty though, I do have several large plans for 2020 – including the possibility of another out-of-town trip. I’m not going to divulge any details at this time – & for good reason. However, wherever I do embark on next, it’s definitely going to involve riding a train.
In conclusion, 2019 was a pretty good year for me, even though it wasn’t necessarily a great year for transit in the Tampa Bay region. There’s still a lot to accomplish & we shall see where everything goes from here. Until next time, have a safe & prosperous 2020!