TAMPA — HART reported record ridership in 2013 and launched the Tampa Bay region’s first Bus Rapid Transit service, the MetroRapid northeast suburb-downtown route that reported an 18.6 percent ridership gain between its first month of operation in June to December.
The overall outlook for 2014 is much the same, as bus usage is expected to retain momentum to reach about 15 million passenger trips with patrons applauding convenience and on-time service.
“We are told by passengers that they are tired of driving in traffic, and others said that it’s a lot cheaper to ride the bus than drive a car, even as the economy improves and gas prices stabilize,” Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Public Information Officer Sandra Morrison said.
But HART’s future may also be shaped in part by issues playing out in Pinellas County, Tallahassee and Orlando.
On Friday, HART and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority will hold separate board meetings to review findings of a legislatively mandated consultant’s report on cost savings from a potential consolidation of HART and PSTA transit functions.
Only the first of three phases of the $200,000 report by KPMG was complete last week , but early indications are that potential annual savings from combining administrative positions would be in the thousands of dollars, rather than $2.4 million an earlier study predicted.
The first report and the one nearing completion contributed to considerable angst among HART board members who adamantly oppose plans for a merger.
The Legislature likely has the authority to force a merger, transit officials said, but state grant revenue contributes only about 11 percent of all budgeted operating revenue for the transit agencies.
What’s more, elected officials from Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa have said privately the city could proposed a “nuclear option” to withdraw from HART if a merger were imposed, although no such plan has been formally introduced.
While prospects for a HART and PSTA merger appear unlikely, another issue involving Pinellas County in 2014 could influence long-term HART plans and resources.
Pinellas voters in November will decide in a referendum whether to increase the sales tax from 7 to 8 percent to raise $130 million annually to replace $30 million in property taxes that help fund PSTA.
The additional money would allow a 65 percent expansion of bus services and the region’s first light-rail line, serving a Clearwater-St. Petersburg route.
Conventional wisdom is that if Pinellas voters approve a tax similar to one Hillsborough voters rejected in 2010, Hillsborough voters might be more willing to reconsider additional support for various types of transit.
In addition to possible improvements in Pinellas County transit, Hillsborough interests will be watching how the first phase of the SunRail commuter system serving the Orlando area fares after it begins service in May.
While HART is not expected to become involved in a heavy rail commuter system, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority and CSX have said they could begin discussions of using freight railroad track through the Tampa Bay region for commuter services, although who might run such trains is uncertain.
Also later this year, the Florida Department of Transportation is expected to choose a site for the Westshore Multimodal Center, which could accommodate bus, Bus Rapid Transit and rail options at a site connected to Tampa International Airport with a people mover system.
In addition to unsettled concepts and plans, HART is expected to complete construction on the state’s first Compressed Natural Gas fueling station at its 21st Avenue operations facility.
HART intends to purchase a new fleet of 28 CNG vans once the new station goes into service and later in the year to put the first of a projected fleet of nearly a dozen CNG buses into service.
By the end of 2015, HART expects to operate 89 CNG vehicles, which use fuel that costs 40 percent less than diesel and reduces the environmental carbon footprint.
But it’s the green-trimmed MetroRapid buses that stand out from HART’s customary blue color scheme, distinctive MetroRapid stations, and the promise that a successful inaugural MetroRapid route could lead to as many as six more that’s captured the most attention in 2013.
The limited-stop service began with a soft opening in May, followed by an official opening on June 10.
Ridership increased each subsequent month except for November, which had two fewer weekdays and to additional Saturdays compared with November 2012. The weekday-only service carried 45,789 passengers in December, about 2,288 per day.
Yolanda Thomas of Tampa has been riding HART buses for 21 years.
“I used to take the Number 2 bus and now I use MetroRapid,” she said. “This one is quicker, faster. You don’t have to wait as long at the bus stop. I love it.”
Tribune photographer Chris Urso contributed to this report