Fresh off a recent report that shows bus ridership at an all-time high, HART is embarking on an ambitious plan to modernize and upgrade its system, including work on the county's first rapid transit routes.
Construction has begun on 11 of 59 stations for HART's MetroRapid route, scheduled to link downtown and the northeast suburbs next spring.
Work already under way involves six Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority stations in Telecom Park, three in Hidden River and the two on Magnolia Drive and Palm Drive on Fletcher Avenue.
The $25 million rapid transit project, a $2 million "Transit Signal Priority" system to speed MetroRapid buses through intersections, and a $1.75 million Fletcher Park and Ride facility for MetroRapid and express services are among 15 projects under way or beginning soon.
They range from an expansion at the Marion Transit Center downtown to behind-the-scenes improvements at HART maintenance facilities to construction of a compressed natural gas fueling station as the agency works to switch all its buses to run on that fuel.
HART chief financial officer Jeff Seward called this year's capital improvement program a "nearly $40 million commitment for transit expansion, updates and modernization."
"The last few years have been focused on project development and design," Seward said. "This year, residents and customers will see a lot of these projects materialize in the form of new service and new or updated facilities."
The rapid transit system will use conventional buses with distinctive markings to serve a 17.5 mile corridor primarily along Nebraska and Fletcher avenues.
The route extends from The Hidden River Corporate Park just off East Fletcher Avenue near Interstate 75 to the Marion Transit Center downtown.
Buses will cover the route with about 30 stops in either direction in about 55 minutes, improving travel time by 10 to 15 percent.
Fiber optic technology is begin installed along Nebraska Avenue to support the transit signal priority system, which will enable operators to extend green lights or shorten red lights to ensure faster travel times.
The Fletcher Park and Ride station at the Hidden River Corporate Park will be the first regional park and ride facility in the northeast section of the county and will be accessible from Interstate 75.
Construction is scheduled to begin in January.
In addition, HART is spending $1.9 million for an engineering and design study for a proposed rapid transit route that would connect Tampa International Airport, the West Shore Business District and the HART Netpark bus transfer center at Hillsborough Avenue and 56th Street, with connections to the north-south line at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
HART started a preliminary design and engineering study this month of a rapid transit route that would run from east to west. The final design is expected to be completed by February, but so far no funding has been found to proceed beyond the design stage.
More than $39.5 million of federal, state, county and other local funding in the fiscal 2013 budget along with $40.1 million in capital improvements in last year's budget underlie the improvements.
Of the nearly $80 million budgeted over two years, more than $44.4 million has been provided by Hillsborough County; $1.8 million in other local funding; $3.5 million in state grants; and nearly $30 million in federal funding.
HART also plans to raise fares on Nov. 11. Regular fares will increase 25 cents, from $1.75 to $2.
So far, MetroRapid costs are running $5.8 million under budget, in part because of lower construction and acquisition costs.
"That money can be returned to the county," Seward said.
Other projects under way or to start soon:
HART also is launching a "fare box replacement working group" to study possible improvements in how passengers pay for rides.