FL: HART Squeezed by Ridership Increase, Revenue Decline

May 07--TAMPA — HART bus driver Carlos Duran discharged his last two passengers at Route 34's final stop in West Tampa on Wednesday at 10:55 a.m. — seven minutes late.

"Only in Tampa," Duran said about non-synchronized traffic signals on the 14.6-mile route, a telling commentary from a driver who began his career in New York before joining Hillsborough Area Regional Transit 25 years ago.

These days it isn't just Duran's pet peeve that made the bus tardy on the 58-minute, post-rush hour route between the bus transfer centers at 56th Street near Hillsborough Avenue in East Tampa and Sheldon Road and Waters Avenue.

In a trend becoming more and more apparent, the lateness was partially a product of stopping at nearly every other one of the 77 bus stops on the route to pick up and discharge passengers.

Contrary to appearances at the beginning and end of the trip, the 35-seat bus was mostly full during much of the ride, another example of HART's continuing, record-setting ridership. Bus ridership in March set a HART record of 1.3 million passengers, 5 percent higher than the previous March.

"The full buses are killing us," HART chief executive Philip Hale recently told members of his board of directors at a streetcar meeting. "Bus ridership is far exceeding our capacity."

Hale was referring to record ridership at a time when HART's budgets are being trimmed, mostly because the property tax revenue that supports the bus system continues to decline.

The combination of more riders and less funding puts more stress than ever on planning, scheduling and running on time.

It's not an easy task.

The agency creates bus schedules by melding drivers' weekly work schedules and maintenance on 177 buses like No. 2406 that Duran was driving, a 2004 model with 391,460 miles on it and another four years to go.

HART must redo schedules three times a year to accommodate labor contracts that provide the 335 drivers with the opportunity to bid for routes.

Weekends complicate driver scheduling, as do rush hour express runs at either end of the day. Time must be built in, for example, to get a bus and driver from HART's bus yard in East Tampa to wherever the morning's run begins, which can be as far away as Pasco County.

And if schedules are missed, buses and passengers miss connections with other buses and passengers can be late to work or school.

If HART could trim five minutes from its schedules on all of its daily bus runs, it would be able to save $3 million annually, said Steve Feigenbaum, the bus system's manager of service planning.

That's not practical to do in a time of increasing ridership; more passengers mean more stops, lengthening travel time on Tampa's vehicularly challenged streets.

And staying on schedule can be much more complicated than it might seem.

Most of the passengers on Duran's midmorning runs last week were regulars, knowledgeable about how to feed the dollar bill and coin fare boxes, boarding with proper fares or to buy multiple trip passes, understanding that it's more efficient to get off the bus from the rear doors rather than the front.

On Duran's eastbound 8:40 a.m. departure from the Northwest Transfer Center, two older passengers collided at the front bus door when a woman headed out the nearest, rather than the HART-preferred, rear bus exit at Hillsborough Avenue and Kelly Road.

No injuries, no lost time, just an exchange of "Sorrys," among the two passengers.

When an older man pushing a walker equipped with wheels boarded at 19th Street and Hillsborough Avenue, a passenger sitting in an area reserved for handicapped riders stood up and relinquished his seat without a word and Duran was quickly on his way.

The passengers who took bicycles on their bus trips quickly attached and detached their bikes from the rack at the front of the bus, and politely returned the rack to the proper position.

It appeared to be a blue collar and young adult group of passengers on Route 34 midday — no suits here — although more trips have become busier with middle school and high school students.

"Parents don't want to be driving their kids to school with gasoline at $4 a gallon," Duran said.

Contrary to the image public transit might have in Tampa and elsewhere, the riders were extremely polite to Duran and one another, even when things got crowded.

"People look down on others much more these days than 30 or 40 years ago," said Duran, who is 56 and expects to drive another six years. "But the people who ride the bus are those who do a lot of jobs everyone needs, like a mechanic who might fix the brakes on your daughter's car."

But sometimes things can go badly. When that happens, schedules can be affected.

"These fare boxes weren't designed for handling $1.75 in pennies," Duran said, but some passengers occasionally jam the fare boxes, sometimes intentionally to try to get a gratuitous discount from a driver trying to meet a schedule.

Those in wheelchairs must have their chairs strapped in, which takes time. And those accommodations are limited, so sometimes passengers must be turned away at the door. So, too, must passengers who race up to a bus and bang on the door, only to get a motion from the driver indicating the would-be rider cannot be picked up anywhere than a designated bus stop.

"You can recognize people who might be recent immigrants," said Duran, who is from Puerto Rico. "They get right out on the road and in front of the bus to wave it down like they were accustomed to doing where they used to live."

Then there's the ever-present issue with broken or overflowing shopping bags, carried by passengers who rely on the bus to get to the market, with the cantaloupe that gets loose and rolls along the floor of the bus and a passenger who has called for a stop in pursuit.

Rolling melons are not among the factors that Katharine Eagan, HART's chief operating officer, encountered in her undergraduate studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and in obtaining a master of public administration from Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas.

Eagan came to HART in 2009 as chief of service development and was named chief operating officer in July after holding executive transit positions in San Angelo, Dallas and Baltimore.

She directs a team of planners and schedulers long on experience and HART tenure. They often show up to work in casual clothes to be able to get away from their gritty offices and into the field on the buses and at the stations to add a human element to the data they crunch.

Computer programs go only so far with the tasks they need to balance the schedules of drivers, mechanics and passengers.

"People wouldn't believe the experience and diversity of background of those who work for HART," Eagan said.

Transit supervisor Joel Thomas, for example, was a school teacher in Jamaica before working 28 years for HART, where the company's tuition reimbursement program helped him obtain bachelor's and master's degrees.

Scheduler John Creaton served 22 years in the U.S. Air Force and has worked with HART for 19 years.

Transit supervisor Rob Roy was in the restaurant business before joining HART 11 years ago.

Director of bus operations Keith Sanders is the newcomer, joining HART in March after working as a part-time driver for the Chicago Transit Authority and working his way up to direct all of the bus dispatch functions for Houston's Metro's 3,000-square-mile service area.

At least once a month they get together as a group to review HART's performance and look ahead to the next schedule refinements.

"It can be frustrating," Eagan said of facing the challenges of a growing ridership and declining budget. "People think, 'How hard can it be to just get a bus there on time?'

"Our challenge is to provide a level of service to allow people to plan their lives. It's complicated."

Copyright 2012 - Tampa Tribune, Fla.

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