The Never-Ending Debate on Tampa Bay Light Rail

A proposed rapid-transit line running between Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Photo Credit: (St. Petersburg Times)
A proposed rapid-transit line running between Clearwater and St. Petersburg.
Photo Credit: Ricardo Ferro (St. Petersburg Times)

As the debate on the future of mass transit in the Tampa Bay area continues to intensify as the vote on Greenlight Pinellas looms closer, I thought it would be interesting to look back a bit on the history of this topic. Multiple times, politicians and community advocates in the region have tried to push for a rapid transit system linking the area, but each time those plans have failed.

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SouthShore Transit Circulator Study

Currently the most under served area in the HART system, the SouthShore may be seeing some new transit options in the future. The SouthShore Transit Circulator Study, which began back on November 19, is looking for ways to improve the mobility of residents in the area, as well as improve access to key employment centers such as the new Amazon distribution warehouse under construction in Ruskin.

A map showing how local and HART FLEX service looks like in SouthShore today. From
A map showing how local and HART FLEX service looks like in SouthShore today. From Click on the image for a larger view.
A map showing how existing Limited Express service looks like in SouthShore today. From
A map showing how existing Limited Express service looks like in SouthShore today. From Click on the image for a larger view.

Currently, transit service in the SouthShore area is pretty limited, with just four  routes running: Route 31, 47LX, 53LX, and the HARTflex South County service. All these routes only provide service on weekdays, with no service available on weekends or holidays. Route 31 operates with two buses running between Westfield Brandon and the HCC SouthShore Campus on a 75-minute headway. Route 47LX is a peak-only service, with two buses leaving Hwy 301 Park-and-Ride at 5:45 and 6:30AM, and two other buses returning at 5:57 and 6:27PM. Route 53LX doesn’t fare much better, with one bus running between Westfield Brandon and Kings Point via Hwy 301 Park-and-Ride on a 120-minute headway between 8AM – 8PM. The HARTflex South County service does a bit better, with a 60 minute headway all day (with the van leaving HCC SouthShore at :05 past the hour and leaving La Estancia Apartments in Wimauma at :35 past the hour).

Between 2000 and 2010, the SouthShore area saw its population increase by 46.7% (in comparison to the 22.7% growth seen in Hillsborough County overall). In the past, residents would have to venture into Tampa or Brandon to access most basic needs such as education, employment, shopping, and so on. With all the population growth in the SouthShore, the area has become largely self-sufficient in meeting those needs for residents. However, transit service in the area has largely remained the same in that time period (apart from the introduction of the 35LX and 47LX in 2006, the 35LX which was later replaced with the 53LX in 2011). That’s why the SouthShore Transit Circulator Study hopes to find a way to improve mobility for residents within the area, while still maintaining an efficient connection to the rest of Hillsborough County.

For the study, Hillsborough MPO and HART have come up with 4 possible alternatives about possible routes to run through the area. In every alternative, the proposal services would replace the current services on Route 31, 53LX, and the South County Flex, with Route 47LX remaining unchanged. (The maps are viewable by clicking on the links; .pdf files.) Note that all four alternatives include a shuttle between the intersection of Big Bend Rd and Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41) and the proposed stop for the Tampa Bay high-speed ferry service, which is independent of the proposed routes. (Potential ridership numbers cited below are for 2025.)

Alternative One – HART Planned Service with Fish Hawk Connection
Perhaps the simplest of the four alternatives, this encompasses the plans that HART has already had for the SouthShore area. All the corridors that already have service would keep it, but frequencies would be increased on all routes. This alternative also shows an extension of the current South County Flex to include more of Ruskin to the west, as well as two brand new Flex routes in Gibsonton and along Big Bend Road. There would also be an extension of fixed-route service east from Gibsonton to Fish Hawk. However, this alternative is also the smallest increase in service among the four, and thus has the lowest potential ridership at only 848 passengers per weekday, with 423 on Saturdays.

Alternative Two – Figure 8 Configuration with Flex
This alternative retains all the extensions and new Flex services seen in Alternative One, but makes significant changes to fixed-route service in the area. Route 1 would run in a Figure-8 running counter-clockwise at the top and clockwise at the bottom, with Route 2 running in a Figure-8 in the opposite direction. Route 1 would still retain the extension to Fish Hawk, with Route 2 continuing service north to Brandon. Unfortunately, the nature of the route structure would lead to longer rides for many passengers, and thus wouldn’t increase ridership much more than Alternative One. Weekday ridership would see 931 passengers, and 466 passengers on Saturdays.

Alternative Three – 2 One-Way Loops with Local Service to Brandon Mall and Fish Hawk
In Alternative Three, we see the new fixed-route service that was first shown in Alternative One along with the extended/new Flex services. This also has two new circulator routes proposed, which will stick to their routes and not see any demand-response service. The inclusion of these circulator routes doesn’t do much to increase ridership compared to Alternative One or Two, with just 944 passengers on weekdays and 472 passengers on Saturdays.

Alternative Four – 2 One-Way Loops, Extended Flex to Riverview High School, No Fish Hawk Extension
Like all the previous alternatives, we see the proposed extension/new Flex services, though the Gibsonton Flex service is extended a bit to the east to serve Riverview HS. Fixed-route service plays a smaller part in this alternative, as there is only one route that leaves the SouthShore area, with the service on Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41) and the proposed extension to Fish Hawk removed. The circulator routes seen in Alternative Three are also seen here, but the routes run in alternating directions every other trip rather than on a continuous one-way loop. There is no way to discern from the map if there is an interline point between the two circulator routes along the shared corridor on Big Bend Route, but it is possible that they could interline there to form two Figure-8 routes through the SouthShore area like Alternative Two. Out of the four alternatives, this one has the highest ridership with 1070 passengers on weekdays and 535 passengers on Saturdays.

While I’m personally preferential to Alternative One for its simplicity and the maintained connections to other destinations out of the area, I think that just as the ridership numbers show, Alternative Four may be the best choice. In studying the possible options for transit in the SouthShore area, it was found that a lot of travel is within the region, and that will only increase as the population continues to grow. Realistically, any increase in transit service would be a boon for the area, but it’s also important to do so in a manner that is effective for both residents and people employed in the area.

The Hillsborough MPO will be presenting the draft report on this study on March 18th at the SouthShore Regional Library (15816 Beth Shields Way, Ruskin FL 33573). The meeting will run from 6-8PM. Keep an eye out here for an update from that meeting later this week.

Introducing Our New Guest Author

Why Tampa?

It’s a question I’ve been asked quite a few times over the last couple years. Out of all the cities to go to, why did I go to Tampa? To better answer that, let’s start at the beginning.

My name is Zac, and I am a “Transit Nerd.” Just as it sounds, I’m very interested in all aspects of public transportation. Strangely enough, one of the tools I use to learn more about public transportation is the social media website Twitter. Much like an online forum, it gives me the opportunity to engage with other “transit nerds” that live across the US. It was on Twitter where I first started learning about transit in the Tampa Bay area courtesy of HART bus operator Jason Eames (the voice behind @yobusdriver3507 and Yo Bus Driver!). I got curious enough about HART that when I left town on a vacation in March 2012, I ended up taking a flight down to Tampa.

While I only intended to stay in Tampa for a couple of weeks at most, my vacation quickly became an impromptu move, as I ended up staying in Tampa for a “few” more weeks. 20 in fact. In that time, I got quite a bit of firsthand experience in Tampa transit as I rode on HART every day. It was also a bit of a culture shock for me, as it seemed that everything about transit in general was completely different from what I was used to. While in Tampa, I also got to take in some rides on USF’s Bull Runner system, as well as PSTA on the other side of Tampa Bay.

During my time in Tampa, I had a few posts on my blog as I recapped my journey to/from an open house in Brandon for a fare increase and service change, along with a ride-along report from Route 41 and a day trip to Pinellas County via PSTA. After moving back to the Pacific Northwest, I continued to include coverage of transit in Tampa Bay on my blog, posting about what could have been if the 2010 Hillsborough transit tax had passed and introducing my own proposal for a Tampa Bay light rail system. Among my most recent Tampa Bay transit posts, arguably the most popular of them, was my coverage of the new HART MetroRapid North-South line, which among other things was the only source for a full route schedule at the launch of service.

Recently, I’ve undergone a relaunch on my blog, changing the name from “TransitZac” to “Transit 509.” With that relaunch, I’ve refocused my blog to only cover transit in my neck of the woods, Area Code 509 (Eastern Washington State). Not wanting to give up blogging on transit in Tampa Bay, but also not wanting to spend the time maintaining a second full-time blog, I had to find a different option. That’s why I’m happy to say that I will be joining Hartride2012 here on Public Transit As Told By Hartride2012 as a new guest author.

Among the usual topics covered here, I hope to also feature coverage on transit history in the Tampa Bay area (such as the old streetcar systems and National City Lines), as well as the plans for expansion of the modern systems. I’m sure that I’ll find more topics to cover along the way, but I always take requests/suggestions as well. Lastly, I want to thank Hartride2012 for giving me the opportunity to continue my blogging on Tampa Bay transit here, as well as my readers from Transit 509 who are reading this blog now too.

PS: You can find me on Twitter under the handle @transit509.