Category Archives: Light Rail (LRT)

Tampa Dreams of SunRail

Metro Orlando is very grateful to have SunRail! Because here in Tampa Bay, it’s hard to build a better transportation network without a meaningful passenger rail system.

In collaboration with the SunRail Riders group – which advocates for better service on the SunRail Commuter Rail system in Orlando – I’m going to talk about SunRail and the challenges that Tampa Bay faces being without a passenger rail system. This post highlights the 7-day-a-week congestion along I-275, challenges with keeping the TECOline Streetcar Line running, and the ongoing battle between transit advocates and supporters, and the rail haters.

I invite you to read the full post at sunrailriders.com and tell us what you think. I want to take a few moments to thank the SunRail Riders for giving me this opportunity, and for everything that they do to help make SunRail even better! I hope to be able to write other pieces for the SunRail Riders in the future.

NOTE: Corresponding media in the post (except this photo) is not mine. Credit goes to their respective authors.

BIG NIGHT TONIGHT in Virginia Beach

The existing Tide LRT Line in Norfolk, VA travels from the Eastern Virginia Medical Center to Newtown Rd. Two studies are currently in progress to extend both termini. Photo taken by HARTride 2012. April, 2013.
Will the Virginia Beach City County select The Tide extension to Town Center as the “Locally Preferred Alternative”? Or will it be Oceanfront? That decision will be made tonight. – Photo Credit: HARTride 2012.

It all comes down to this…

Tonight, the Virginia Beach City Council is expected to select the “Locally Preferred Alternative” (or LPA) for the Virginia Beach Transit Extension Study. The council is also slated to ratify next year’s city budget at tonight’s meeting, which currently includes $20 million dollars for the light rail extension plan.

So far, most of the council seems to be supportive of Mayor Will Sessoms’ proposed budget changes, which also includes a four percent increase for city workers and teachers. Transit advocates and supporters have been fighting hard to make sure that the council moves in a direction that will allow light rail to be extended into Virginia Beach. On the line right now is a state-proposed deal that would have them pay for roughly half the cost of extending The Tide, which currently terminates at the Virginia Beach/Norfolk city limits, to Town Center. The city would be responsible for taking up the remainder of the costs.

Many rail haters meanwhile have been chastising the council, claiming that the light rail extension is part of the reason for a planned tax hike that is to take effect in 2016 and that money can be better spent elsewhere. Many Tea Party activists and insiders have been clamoring that Bus Rapid Transit is a far cheaper and economical alternative to light rail, and that the council should either go that route, or not build anything at all.

Tonight’s meeting begins at 6PM at the Virginia Beach City Council Chambers, 2401 Courthouse Drive, Virginia Beach, Virginia, 23456.

You can view tonight’s agenda through the city council’s website.

FRIDAY REWIND – 2013 visit to Norfolk, VA

Friday Rewind New 1

Two years ago this month, I took a trip to Norfolk and Virginia Beach, VA to visit relatives and to embark on my first ride along a light rail line. In this Friday Rewind post, I will reflect back on my experience in Hampton Roads and how the area is pushing for more transportation choices,

In many respects, Norfolk, VA is very similar to Tampa, FL. Both have similarly structured bus systems that utilize Gillig transit buses, and both transit districts; HART and HRT, are facing the same budgetary issues when it comes to maintaining what they have, as well as trying to expand service wherever they can. Both cities have also had old style streetcar systems in the past, both of which were later dismantled. One key difference though, is that Hampton Roads does not have the type of street grid that Tampa Bay has. Most streets in Virginia Beach for instance, are spider web type, which means that roads either radiate around a central point or zig zag in multiple directions. This makes it much harder to run buses, especially routes with are crucial for employment centers. Another difference is that Norfolk has been able to build its starter light rail line, something that Tampa has been vying to do for many years, and may finally have a real chance of modernizing its heritage streetcar system in the coming years.

Reflections Tour

Now, let me take you through what I was able to experience while in Norfolk last April…

Train #401 departs towards downtown Norfolk. Photo taken by HARTride 2012. April, 2013.
Train #401 departs towards downtown Norfolk. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012. April, 2013.

Ballentine Blvd

I first parked my car at the Ballentine/Broad Creek Park-and-Ride Lot, just next to the Ballentine/Broad Creek LRT Station. My original plan was to actually use the Military Hwy Park-and-Ride Lot, but I ended up wanting to go just a bit closer to the Norfolk State University Campus, where I could feel the historical charm of the entire city of Norfolk. These two Park-and-Ride lots are two of the four that Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) provides to its customers to allow them to use light rail to get to downtown, instead of hassling with city parking. The other two lots are located at Harbor Park (next to the Harbor Park Stadium) and the Newtown Rd terminus.

Once at the LRT station, I purchased a one-day GoPass that would allow me to ride the bus system and the LRT. I then snapped some photos of the surrounding area as I waited for the next train to arrive. The train shown in this photo arrived just as I walked up to the station. The next train arrived about 15 minutes later. Since this was a Saturday that I rode the train,the frequency of trains was at every 15 minutes.

Heading into downtown

Once onboard the train, I quickly took in the sights of the urban landscape and the sounds of the train rolling along, with automated announcements guiding customers to each station. I’ve noticed that the sound that the Siemens S70 LRV trains make as they pull in and out of each station is very similar to how the Alstom/Bombardier MF 2001 subway trains and Citadis LRV trains in Paris sound like as they arrive and depart. I also liked how sleek, clean, and modern the trains are, as I’ve always been fascinated with modern buses and trains. There are only a handful of light rail lines in the US that still use older, non-articulated types of LRV trains. One of those lines I’ve learned is located in Buffalo, NY. Actually, their system is an LRT/Pre-Metro line, which I’ll profile in a future post.

The track as it meanders through downtown Norfolk. Photo taken by HARTride 2012. April, 2013.
The track as it meanders through downtown Norfolk. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012. April, 2013.

MacArthur Square

Once getting off the train, I quickly took in the sights and sounds of the heart of downtown Norfolk, specifically MacArthur Square. This wonderful urban space includes green space that surrounds the current LRT station. I understand that during the construction of the Tide LRT, a couple of buildings along Main St had to be demolished to make way for the stations and track. To the northeast of the MacArthur Square LRT station is the Douglas MacArthur Memorial statue and museum. The building that houses the museum was originally the Norfolk City Hall. The current city hall is located at a small complex of buildings near the Elizabeth River that are a part of Norfolk Civic Plaza. There is also an LRT stop at the Civic Plaza complex.

 The MacArthur Center

To the north of the station is the MacArthur Center Mall, which I would say is a “watered down” version of Tampa’s International Plaza. The complex comprises of trendy stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, Forever 21, and H&M, as well as higher-end stores like Nordstrom.  Despite the mall’s relatively small footprint, it’s still a great place to visit if you have some extra time to shop and drop. And why battle for a parking space, when you can easily take the train into downtown?

The western fringe of downtown Norfolk. Photo taken by HARTride 2012 in April, 2013.
The western fringe of downtown Norfolk. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012 in April, 2013.

Walking through Norfolk

After visiting the mall, I decided to take a northwestward stroll through downtown and its flanking residential district to the west. The old charm of the multi-story apartment buildings really makes Norfolk a pretty neat place to live. There’s a good variety of parks, attractions, and museums to visit, as well as lots of shops and eateries to stop by at. The Virginia Beach Expressway provides quick access to the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, and there’s plenty of opportunities to spend time with nature, including the Norfolk Botanical Gardens.

Proceeding northwestward, I came across the the Fort Norfolk area, just bordering the historic Granby district to the north and downtown Norfolk to the east. This area encompasses many healthcare complexes, including the Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and the Eastern Virginia Medical Center (EVMC). This area also serves as the current western terminus for the Tide LRT. A little further west of this point is a ton of rail yards and industrial shipping docks.

I then proceeded northward towards the historic Granby district, where many centuries-old housing are located. A little further north of where I traveled is Old Dominion University, which is the second major college campus in the Norfolk area. I was really taken away by the unique charm of the older homes and beautiful landscaping. I even got to witness one of the area residents manicuring her wonderful bed of tulips, and these were pretty large tulips too! As I proceeded through the historic Granby district, I was taken even more into the historic charm that Norfolk has to offer, without all the nightclub hubub of Ybor City.

The Return Trip

Finishing up my wonderful walk through the Granby district, I stumbled upon the Cedar Grove Transfer Center, located along Princess Anne Rd and Salter St. On July 7, 2013, all transfer center operations moved to an interim terminal along Wood St, just steps away from the Norfolk Scope Arena. Cedar Grove reminds me a lot of the makeshift bus depot that HART once had at the former Tampa Bay Center Mall, because Cedar Grove is nothing more than a parking lot with a few bus shelters on one side. There were no restrooms or other facilities at the site either. Eventually, a new, modern bus terminal will be built in downtown Norfolk, equipped with restrooms.

It took me a while to locate a bus route that would get me back to the Tide LRT line, but I did manage to locate the shelter for Local Bus Route 44, which travels towards Fort Norfolk in the southbound direction. As I’ve mentioned in my previous post, HRT’s bus fleet primarily comprises of Gillig Low Floor buses. These buses have either a white or grey livery with waves at the bottom. The interiors are a lot like the 2001 series buses that both HART and PSTA have, but with primarily blue colors.

With the height of the afternoon coming to a close, I decided start heading back to Broad Creek so that I could meet up with my family for dinner. Upon arrival to the EVMC/Fort Norfolk LRT station, the train had already arrived and was awaiting departure. I rode the train all the way back to the Ballentine/Broad Creek LRT station and took a few more photos along the way.

What’s next for public transit in Hampton Roads

If you missed my last few posts on The Tide, then you’ve missed quite a bit. Right now, the fight is on to extend the light rail line into Virginia Beach, specifically Town Center or Rosemont. The ongoing transit extension study has taken many twists and turns throughout the past several months, and now it’s come down to the wire as Virginia Beach city leaders decide on the next stage of the study. Unfortunately, the rail haters have mobilized and are threatening to kill off the entire process by convincing the Virginia Beach City Council to go for the dreaded “No Build” option instead of selecting a Locally Preferred Alternative for the ongoing transit extension study. If this happens, Virginia Beach stands to be set back anywhere from 20 to 50 years when it comes to public transit and providing better transportation choices. Any such setback will also jeopardize the Naval Station Norfolk extension study, as well as other transit expansion efforts in the area.

It’s crunch time for Virginia Beach light rail

Over the past several months, I’ve been blogging about the Virginia Beach Transit Extension Study and the developments, updates, and yes…even monkey wrenches that have been thrown into the process. Now, things are coming down to the wire as the Virginia Beach City Council debates what decision they will make for the proposed extension of The Tide Light Rail into their city limits.

A recap of what’s at stake

Around this time last year or so, Virginia state officials proposed paying for roughly half of the costs (up to $155 million dollars) to extend the Tide to Town Center. The city of Virginia Beach would then be required to pick up the remainder (roughly $130 million) of the costs. Since this deal was announced, Virginia Beach city leaders have been debating as to whether to formally accept the state proposal and move forth with building the light rail extension, or whether to put the brakes on the extension study altogether. If the deal is declined, the one-time fund being offered by the state would vanish.

Also still on the table, even if the state deal is accepted, is a controversial maglev rail proposal that some city officials really like. Moving forward with that plan would require a redundant transfer to two completely different modes of rail transport. The same private company that has been pitching the maglev corridor to Virginia Beach officials, American Maglev Technology, is part of a consortium trying to bring a maglev corridor to the city of Orlando, FL.

All the while, fiscal conservatives have been questioning whether any rail extension is even worth it. And some forces, which I’ll explain more in a moment, have already banded together to ensure that the eastern light rail terminus remains at the Virginia Beach city limits.

Study update public hearings set for April and May

Hampton Roads Transit, the regional transit authority that operates the Tide, as well as local, express, and shuttle bus services, as well as paratransit van services, has announced four public hearings to go over the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the transit extension study. These hearings will be held on the following dates/times at the following locations:

Monday, April 13, 2015, 6-7:30pm
Meyera E. Oberndorf Central Library
4100 Virginia Beach Blvd.
Virginia Beach, VA 23452
Served by Route 20

Thursday, April 16, 2015, 6-7:30pm
Linkhorn Park Elementary School
977 First Colonial Road
Virginia Beach, VA 23454
Served by Route 29

Monday, April 20, 2015, 6-7:30pm
ODU-NSU Higher Education Center
1881 University Drive
Virginia Beach, VA 23453
Served by Routes 25 and 33

Saturday, April 25, 2015, 11am-12:30pm
Renaissance Academy
5100 Cleveland Street
Virginia Beach, VA 23462
1 block from Route 20

Please attend these meetings if you can.

For those not able to make it to the hearings, you can still send in your comments to HRT. Please be sure to address your envelop as follows:

Hampton Roads Transit

c/o Marie Arnt

509 E. 18th St.

Norfolk, VA 23504

Decision Day is fast approaching for the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) selection

May 8 is currently set as the date that city council members must come to a decision on the Locally Preferred Alternative (or LPA). The selection of the LPA means that more thorough engineering work and cost analyses can be performed. In addition, the selection of the LPA allows for HRT to build a Final Environmental Impact Statement (or FEIS). The council has the option to stick with the Town Center proposal brought forth by the state, carry out one of the three original options (Rosemont, Oceanfront via Norfolk Southern Railway Corridor, Oceanfront via Laskin Rd), move towards a Bus Rapid Transit corridor instead of light rail, or simply do nothing (the dreaded “No Build” option). If the “No Build” option is chosen, the transit extension study will cease.

Note: Due to federal funding requirements and constraints, it is highly unlikely that either of the proposals to bring light rail to the Virginia Beach Oceanfront will move ahead at this time.

Additionally, the city is trying to craft the upcoming fiscal year’s budget, and transportation funding is on the line. The city council is scheduled to vote on the budget May 12. Information can be found at: http://www.vbgov.com/government/departments/budget-office-management-services/budget-archives/Pages/fy2015-16.aspx – Among the budget proposals is a possible property tax increase to pay for more city services, including the light rail extension (if it is decided to move along with the proposal).

On Thursday, April 16, Virginia Beach City Council members Ben Davenport, Bob Dyer and Dr. Amelia Ross-Hammond will host a town hall meeting to discuss the proposed city budget. This meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the cafeteria of Kempsville High School, 5194 Chief Trail in Virginia Beach, 23464. A Facebook Event has been set up by the folks who run the Bring the Tide to Virginia Beach social media accounts.

Two public hearings are scheduled on the following dates/times at the following locations:

Thursday, April 23, 6 p.m.

Green Run High School

1700 Dahlia Drive

Virginia Beach, VA 23453

April 28, 6 p.m.

Virginia Beach City Council Chambers

2401 Courthouse Drive

Virginia Beach, VA 23456

Please attend these meetings if you can.

Rail haters threaten to derail the effort

Just like here in Tampa, FL, Hampton Roads has its own flock of rail haters who clearly do not want the region to have any transportation choices. Many of these haters are composed of staunch Tea Party conservatives who would rather see the region continuing to subsidize and toll roads while forcing transit to decline and eventually be privatized. Many of these same people are also against “True” Bus Rapid Transit, but might not mind so much mixed traffic “BRT Lite” like HART’s MetroRapid. From what I’m hearing as of late, the rail haters have been out in full force drowning city officials’ voicemails with angry messages stating that they don’t want any rail proposal to move forward.

My question here is; why is it always that these rail haters are getting prime loudspeaker time? It’s time for us transit advocates and supporters to step up to the plate and make it loud and clear that we want transportation choices for Hampton Roads. If we let this opportunity for the state to partially fund this extension pass by, then the entire region stands to be set back 30 to 50 years, or even more, when it comes to being able to build a robust transit system. Because what the rail haters fail to realize, is that by killing the Virginia Beach light rail study, they’re also jeopardizing the fate of the Naval Station Norfolk light rail study, and similar efforts to bring light rail into Hampton, Portsmouth, and Chesapeake.

Get Involved

So I ask everyone in Hampton Roads to get involved in supporting the Virginia Beach light rail extension and send a clear message across the region that we want better transportation options and will not back down to demands from the rail haters to give up and walk away. I strongly encourage everyone to please attend the upcoming meetings and to let your elected officials know that you care. Additionally, I ask everyone, whether you’re a Virginia Beach resident or not, to please contact city officials. Please let them know why extending the Tide is so important for not just Virginia Beach, but for Hampton Roads as a region. Also, please spread the word to friends, family members, and colleagues about the transit extension study, why its so important to extend the light rail line, and to attend the upcoming meetings and contact Virginia Beach city leaders.

Below, I’ve listed the names and contact information for each of the Virginia Beach city council members, the mayor, and the vice mayor. I want to thank the folks who run the Bring the Tide to Virginia Beach social media accounts for getting this information out there. The contact info is also listed on the Virginia Beach municipal government website.

Mayor William D. Sessoms, Jr.
January 1, 2009 to December 31, 2016
Office:(757) 385-4581
wsessoms@VBgov.com

Vice Mayor Louis R. Jones – Bayside
January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2018
Work:(757) 583-0177
Home:(757) 464-2151
lrjones@VBgov.com

Benjamin Davenport – At Large
January 1, 2015 to December 31,2018
bdavenpo@vbgov.com

Bob Dyer – Centerville
January 1, 2009 to December 31, 2016
Home:(757) 467-3130
bdyer@VBgov.com

Barbara M. Henley – Princess Anne
January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2018
Home:(757) 426-7501
bhenley@VBgov.com

Shannon DS Kane – Rose Hall
January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2016
Work:(757) 802-3236
skane@vbgov.com

John D. Moss – At Large
January 1, 2015 to December 31,2018
Home:(757) 363-7745
mossjohn@cox.net

Amelia N. Ross-Hammond- Kempsville
January 1, 2013 to December 31, 2016
Home:(757) 646-1709
ahammond@VBgov.com

John E. Uhrin – Beach
January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2018
Work:(757) 200-7005
juhrin@VBgov.com

Rosemary Wilson – At Large
January 1, 2009 to December 31, 2016
Home:(757) 422-0733
rcwilson@VBgov.com

James L. Wood – Lynnhaven
January 1, 2015to December 31, 2018
Work:(757) 340-8411
Fax:(757) 498-6324
jlwood@VBgov.com

The street address for all members of Council is:
2401 Courthouse Drive
City Hall, Building #1
Municipal Center
Virginia Beach, VA 23456

Go Hillsborough – Part 1 – An Overview

Credit: HARTride 2012
Credit: HARTride 2012

Let the discussion begin

You’ve likely been hearing about it over the past few months, but now the official public outreach process has begun in Hillsborough County. What is this outreach process about exactly? It’s about building a better transportation network throughout the county. Because let’s face it, we’re at a pivotal crossroads right now, and unless we act to fix the situation at hand, things will only get worse from here.

Continue reading Go Hillsborough – Part 1 – An Overview

HRT Snow Routes

image
Photo Credit: Hampton Roads Transit (HRT)

Back in December, I told you about Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) working on a system of Snow Routes, designed to provide basic bus services in the event that sustained snowfall is forecasted to exceed six inches.

In the last few weeks, HRT has unveiled those Snow Routes and installed blue “snowflake” signs at designated bus stops. The routes themselves are designated by color and will operate every hour (unless otherwise indicated) between 6:00am and 8:00pm Monday through Saturday. Sunday service will NOT be provided.

Now keep in mind, these Snow Routes will only be activated if sustained snowfall is to exceed six inches. Usually such circumstances will warrant schools and many other government facilities to close due to many streets being impassable. Additionally, many transit agencies, including HRT, do not have the resources available to clear streets on their own. This is left to the responsibility of the area municipal governments (usually the Public Works Department) to ensure that all streets are cleared of snow and ice. What this does do though, is that the plowing/clearing of thoroughfares is prioritized so that buses can move through quickly.

In events by which the snow routes are not activated, HRT will operate normal transit service to the fullest extent it can while ensuring the safety of customers and employees. There will no doubt be delays and detours, and customers should always arrive at their stop early to ensure on-time boarding. Additionally, customers stay tuned to local media outlets and social media for updates. Customers can also contact Customer Service (when open) for information, but keep in mind that operations may be limited during major weather events.

HRT will exercise caution when operating light rail and ferry services and will decrease or suspend services if weather conditions worsen. Customers should plan accordingly.

Further information on HRT’s Snow Routes and other weather related transit procedures can be found on HRT’s website.

Holiday Transit Services for Independence Day – July 4, 2014

Independence Day will be on Friday, July 4, and as with many holidays, transit services will be limited. Please see the listing below to see what level of service that each transit district will operate.

Continue reading Holiday Transit Services for Independence Day – July 4, 2014

Virginia Beach Light Rail agreement reached

Light rail may finally be coming to Virginia Beach at last! But not to the Oceanfront.
Light rail may finally be coming to Virginia Beach at last! But not to the Oceanfront.

In a turn of events that spanned the course of the last month, it appears that the city of Virginia Beach has signed onto what is merely a consolation prize, not necessarily ending the battle to get the Oceanfront connected to light rail.

Continue reading Virginia Beach Light Rail agreement reached

February, 2014 Ridership Report

RidershipReportTitle-2014-02

The numbers are out once again! And the month of February brought forth strong transit ridership along Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART), the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), and Hampton Roads Transit (HRT). Let’s take a quick glance at the numbers! For the report, I’ve been able to get clarification as to what modes of bus transport are included in the calculations. Please note that Rail and Ferry services are not included in these numbers.

RidershipReportScreen-2014-02

For HART, February, 2014’s bus ridership numbers could not be anymore stronger! Bus ridership on the HART system grew by 3.5% over February, 2012, with MetroRapid taking in 50,587 riders! February 4th saw the highest single-day ridership for the month, with 59,000 boardings, and 15 out of 20 weekdays saw ridership surpass the 50,000 mark!

About the only sore spot for HART is the In-Town Trolley, which has seen ridership continue to diminish. There is currently a study underway to re-evaluate downtown Tampa transit services, including possible improvements to the TECOline Streetcar Line (which has also immensely suffered from low ridership and service cuts), a revamp of the downtown bus circulator system, and the possibility of re-opening Marion St to general traffic. I’ll have more on this in an upcoming post.

PSTA suffered a relatively small decline of less than 1% in February, 2014 vs February, 2013. While this could be for a variety of reasons, bus ridership remains strong along the PSTA system, with 1,093,069 riders using the agency’s fixed-route bus and trolleybus routes, and flex-route connector services. Ridership on the St. Pete Downtown Looper Trolleybus and the Clearwater Jolley Trolley, which are partially funded by PSTA, saw passenger numbers reach 5,048 and 41,537 respectively. Let’s hope that the Safety Harbor Jolley Trolley trial phase is a huge success!

HRT suffered a bus ridership decline of 6.9%, likely due to the episodes of inclement weather that has struck Hampton Roads during the month of February (winter just does not want to let go of the north it seems). Average bus ridership during all days of the week took a hit, with average weekday ridership decreasing by 7.2%, Saturday by 2.4%, and Sunday by about 1.1%. Comparing February, 2014 ridership against the same month in 2013 and 2012, bus ridership declined by 6.5%.

One huge sore spot for HRT is the GoPass 365 program. This program allows participating employers and education institutions to hand out a specific number of passes to employees and students. These passes allow participants to use the HRT bus, light rail, and ferry systems without having to pay the normal fares. The program began in mid 2011 with ridership from participating organizations growing since then. Originally, the program was structured in a way that one only had to show their employer or institutional ID card to board the bus, train, or ferry.

Unfortunately, overall system ridership has not seen a dramatic increase as HRT had hoped for, which in-turn has hurt farebox revenues and budget/revenue projections. This has forced HRT to make changes in the way that the GoPass 365 program operates, as well as resulted in several organizations pulling out of the program for next fiscal year (which will be FY 2014/2015). One of the participating institutions that saw the largest overall GoPass 365 ridership during FY 2013/2014 was Tidewater Community College. They are among the several organizations that have decided to not renew their contract with HRT due to the changes that are planned for FY 2014/2015. I suspect that if further changes are not made to stifle these negative trends, the GoPass 365 program will end up being eliminated altogether.

SOURCES

An additional note about the SouthShore Transit Circulator Study

If a sales tax referendum were to pass in Hillsborough County by 2016, we could ultimately see a MetroRapid corridor between Brandon and SouthShore, among other massive improvements by 2040! Photo Credit: HARTride 2012.
If a sales tax referendum were to pass in Hillsborough County by 2016, we could ultimately see a MetroRapid corridor between Brandon and SouthShore, among other massive transit improvements by 2040! Photo Credit: HARTride 2012.

As Zac wrote out in his post from Monday (3/10), the SouthShore Transit Circulator Study is aimed at improving mobility for residents in the SouthShore area, while maintaining an efficient connection to the rest of Hillsborough County.

I would like to take a few moments to point out one thing that this study encompasses. Whichever proposal outlined in the SouthShore Transit Circulator Study, that is chosen for service would be operated using whatever funds that HART has at its disposal. HART has stressed in this recent TBO.com article that implementation of any changes to the existing SouthShore network will have to wait a few years because a lack of funding does not currently allow HART to purchase very many new buses. In fact, the agency has been having trouble trying to keep pace with just replacing obsolete buses and, has actually been slowly losing buses since 2010 (for example; the 1999 fleet of buses that were retired back in 2011 still have not been replaced due to a lack of funds).

For any substantial improvements to be made to the current SouthShore system, beyond the scope of what the Circulator Study provides, a transit referendum, similar to the Greenlight Pinellas initiative, will have to be passed by Hillsborough County voters. Many will recall the many mistakes that were made with the 2010 Hillsborough referendum, and many county leaders are still reluctant to push forth for a possible 2015 or 2016 ballot measure. If a referendum was passed by 2016, and the added funds started flowing in afterward, HART would be able to add in the buses that it desperately needs to substantially improve services throughout Hillsborough. Whichever of the four proposals that are selected from the ongoing ShouthShore Circulator Study would be able to act as a starting point for further expansion that would be able to occur beyond 2025.

That further expansion, with the passage of a transit referendum, would undoubtedly bring further enhancements along the existing services/routes, as well as those implemented by whichever proposal that is selected from the Circulator Study. Now keep in mind that the study only projects weekday and Saturday ridership. This leads me to believe that Sunday service will not be included in the initial setup. If a transit referendum were to pass on the other hand, Sunday services could be added to the mix, which is something that I feel that the SouthShore area will need sooner than later. For example, Sunday routes could start running with 60-minute headways from 6:30am until 8:30pm, with room for further expansion thereafter if need be. In addition, several more local routes to SouthShore, as well as communities northward (like Riverview, Gibsonton, Brandon, and Valrico) would be introduced.

The passage of a transit referendum could also bring forth a dedicated MetroRapid (BRT) route from SouthShore to Brandon, and better express services to Downtown Tampa and even the USF area. Then somewhere between 2030 and 2035, light rail could be introduced along the SR 674 corridor, as well as portions of the US 41 and US 301 corridors. Light rail would then be able to connect SouthShore residents and visitors to a commuter rail line along I-75. The commuter rail line would be able to quickly shuttle customers from SouthShore to not only Brandon, Tampa, and the USF area, but also Bradenton and Sarasota to the south. All this could happen regardless of what develops with the High Speed Ferry plan.

With that said, regardless of what proposal/alignment is chosen from the SouthShore Circulator Study, HART is going to need the passage of a transit referendum to be able to further enhance existing services, expand its network, and purchase new buses. From what I’ve been hearing recently, if HART doesn’t receive new funds by the time its 2004-series buses reach retirement (which is 2016/2017), they will be faced with a massive dilemma of having to possibly slash services and hike fares in order to further maintain what they have. If a doomsday scenario was put out onto the table, it would possibly mean that late-night and weekend services would all be on the chopping block, and base fares would have to increase from the current level of $2.00 to possibly $2.50 or higher. It doesn’t have to be this way!

In closing, I wanted to make sure that all of our readers understand that while the SouthShore Circulator Study is great for the SouthShore area in terms of revitalizing a faltering neighborhood transit system, it is only a starting point. All of these enhancements and expansions can be done, but only if the funds are available for them. Without a dedicated funding source, like a sales tax, in place, SouthShore transit service will likely not be getting substantially better during the next 10 to 15 years.