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.