It’s not surprising that overall ridership on HART buses is setting records, including a 7 percent increase last month over the previous December. Traffic throughout Hillsborough County is terrible, even with gas hovering around $3.50 a gallon.
And if someone decides public transportation beats taking out a small loan to fill up the gas tank and then to park, it’s not like there are a lot of alternatives to the bus.
So I don’t see those numbers, gaudy as they are, as a ticker-tape victory for the buses-only crowd. It seems to me that as more people look for better ways to get around our car-clogged metropolis, they’ll ride the bus because that’s all they’ve got.
“HART has been successful in part because it’s there,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said.
He is no big fan of HART, by the way. He would like to see new management at the agency, a new mission, new creativity and, for all I know, new drapes and carpeting at the headquarters. Mostly, he would like HART to see transit through fresh eyes.
“This agency is not capable of concentrating on anything but its core mentality,” Sharpe said.
In other word, buses.
I bring this up for a couple of reasons.
First, we sure do spend a lot of money around here to build roads. The Selmon Expressway Connector just opened at a cost of more than $500 million, if you include what it cost to buy rights of way. Workers are in the middle of a three-year rebuild of Interstate 275 from downtown Tampa to the West Shore area ($215 million).
There are millions more in other projects waiting to be built, and by the time they’re all finished planners will tell us the roads are inadequate and they need to build more.
That brings up the second point: We have to diversify the way we get around here. It’s OK to build more and better roads. It’s fine to offer upgraded bus service, such as HART’s popular MetroRapid.
But with Hillsborough County about to experience another population boom, it means the suburbs are going to sprawl even more and force people into longer commutes. Addressing that means some sort of commuter rail system has to be on the table.
“What we have to get beyond is the notion that there is one mode and one mode only for transit,” Sharpe said. “And we have to get beyond the idea that if you subscribe to rail, it’s socialism – or worse.”
It’s not socialism, but I will give a nod to critics of commuter rail. They have a point when arguing about deficits and overall cost. You hear a lot about privatization of projects like these, and that would be worth exploring before anyone asks voters to tax themselves to pay for a rail system.
The time to explore that is now, before another 200,000 or more people move into this county by 2020, as some planners project.
We may view ourselves as Brandon, Palma Ceia, New Tampa, West Tampa, and all the other neighborhoods that make up our marvelously diverse area. A business considering the area for relocation and high-paying jobs will just see Tampa, though.
One of the first questions those executives will ask is how we all get around here. Nothing against buses, but we’d better have more options than that.