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 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.

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.