RUSKIN - Not too many years ago, bus riders living south of Gibsonton Drive were looking for a way to get to work in Tampa or get to Brandon to purchase everything from groceries to lumber.
As retail outlets, big box stores and new job centers have popped up in South Shore, with more on the way, that's all changing.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization, responsible for developing a long-range transportation plan for the county, is seizing on that new reality as it updates its public transportation strategy.
For the past few months, the MPO, with the assistance of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, or HART, has been conducting surveys and polling on the type of bus service people in South Shore now seek.
The most popular alternative to date is one that incorporates two loop bus routes between Gibsonton Drive and College Avenue in Ruskin with stops at places like the new St. Joseph's Hospital, the Amazon warehouse center under construction, Hillsborough Community College and the proposed mall, also on Gibsonton Drive.
"The study looks at the 2025 horizon," said Sarah McKinley, senior transportation planner for the MPO. "We started the study in November with a key group of stakeholders, on priorities and destinations."
They came up with four alternatives for the South Shore Transit Circulator Study.
A meeting is set for 4:30 p.m., March 18 at the South Shore Regional Library, 15816 Beth Shields Way, Ruskin, to finalize the update. Meanwhile, interested parties can take a survey online and look at Alternative One, Alternative Two, Alternative Three and Alternative Four, to let the MPO know what they think.
So, far, McKinley said, Alternatives Three and Four are the most popular. The public can still give input at the March 18 meeting.
"The biggest attractors (for bus stops) are big employment centers, grocery stores like Walmart and stores like Home Depot and Lowe's," said Steve Feigenbaum, manager of service planning for HART. "The routes are 90 percent work-oriented."
Right now, HART has no money to add any new buses, Feigenbaum said. But in four or five years, that should change.
"Funding is going down while demand is going up," he said. "It looks like this will be our fifth consecutive year of record ridership."
Jim Harkins IV, of Sun City Center and the founder of the South County Roundtable, said his community won't support any bus system that has people riding for two hours to get a short distance.
"I'd like to see a user-friendly bus system," which he says HART doesn't currently have. "They're not going to get our political support without a passenger-driven business model."
Feigenbaum admits the current South Shore routes are not popular.
"Right now, the service is not well-utilized," he said. "What people want is more mobility to get around the south county area."
And the alternatives being considered reflect that, he said.
"They treat the South Shore community as more of an independent, an insular community," Feigenbaum said.