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Bus systems roll with cuts
Officials feared the trims would be much worse.
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
Published July 8, 2007
Property tax cuts will definitely take a bite out of one of the most visible manifestations of government -- your local public bus.
But it won't be that big a bite.
Booming property values in recent years have fueled a significant expansion in mass transit, giving Tampa Bay area counties more flexibility in dealing with the coming downtimes.
Hernando may have to kill off its small bus service. Pasco is postponing new routes into its growing suburbs. But Pinellas is actually adding buses to its busiest routes and Hillsborough's cuts won't be as bad as initially feared.
Of course, all bets are off if voters approve a "super homestead exemption" in January. That would put many more buses on the chopping block next year.
Meanwhile, local officials are lamenting what appears to be the end of an unusual growth period for their transit systems.
"Both Pinellas and Hillsborough have kind of turned a corner," said Bob Lasher of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. "We're getting frequency in service to the point where people say, 'If I miss a bus, I'll only have to wait 15 minutes.' But the fuel and operational costs have gone up staggeringly."
Here's a county-by-county breakdown:
Hillsborough: The county's bus agency thought it might have to ax 10 of its 43 routes as well as Sunday service and popular express buses for commuters.
Now, after another look at the numbers, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit plans to end only three of its least-used routes to help trim $1.7-million from next year's $65-million budget. It's also canceling a new door-to-door suburban minibus service that was to start this summer.
"This is far less severe than what we were originally positioning ourselves for," said HART spokeswoman Jill Cappadoro.
Slated to end in October are Route 98, a trolley from the Tampa Convention Center to Hyde Park; 35LX, a bus from Sun City Center to Brandon; and 52LX, from central Pasco to the university area and then to downtown Tampa. (Another express bus straight from Wesley Chapel to downtown will still operate.)
The routes carry about 2,500, 1,100 and 950 riders a month, respectively. On Thursday, the only people on the Hyde Park trolley for at least an hour were Jodi Martin of Plant City, her 13-year-old daughter and an out-of-town friend. "There's no one else on it, so I don't know if that's a good sign," Martin said.
HART is keeping late-night buses on nine routes where a group of 20 churches recently pressed for later hours for low-income workers.
Pinellas: Property tax cuts will cost PSTA about $1-million, leaving it with $56-million next year -- the same as this year. About $37-million comes from local taxes; the rest from federal and state grants as well as bus fares, which have risen about $700,000 since last year, Lasher said.
PSTA is cutting nine jobs. But it's increasing the frequency of its busiest routes to every 20 minutes at rush hour. These include Route 60, which runs east from downtown Clearwater; and Routes 59 and 74, which run from Williams Park north to Gandy Boulevard and Ulmerton Road, then west toward the beaches.
Fancier alternatives like Bus Rapid Transit -- frequent buses that make fewer stops -- may be receding further into the future.
"That's definitely in the back of everybody's mind: How are you going to fund new projects when your funding is being cut right now?" Lasher said.
Pasco: Rapidly growing Pasco County Public Transportation drew close to 860,000 riders last year, a whopping 56 percent increase over two years.
But next year's budget is about $3.9-million, compared to $4.6-million now. So PCPT is putting off plans to add a route to Moon Lake and a cross-county connector on State Road 54.
"We don't have service in central Pasco right now," said PCPT transportation manager Thelma Williams. "We'll just have to wait and see what the future holds."
Hernando: At a public forum on taxes last month, angry Hernando County residents suggested saving money by shutting down the Hernando Express Bus, known as THE Bus.
Last week, bus riders begged Hernando commissioners to spare it because they had no other way to get around.
The 5-year-old bus service carries nearly 600 passengers a day on six routes. About $600,000 of its $1.6-million budget comes from Hernando County, which has to hack $8.5-million in spending. The county will decide later this month whether to save THE Bus or kill it.
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Local bus officials aren't happy about losing ground they've gained in recent years because of rising property values.
Between 2002 and 2007, PSTA's budget rose 51 percent, from $37-million to $56-million, while ridership rose 20 percent to a projected 12-million.
Between 2003 and 2007, HART's budget rose 83 percent from $29.7-million to $54.5-million, while ridership rose 35 percent to a projected 11-million.
Bus agencies say the cost of gas and health insurance for workers has eaten up much of their budgets. They argue that they're still underfunded compared to transit agencies in similar cities.
"Over the last four years," said Cappadoro of HART, "those dollars have been plowed right back into growing the bus service."