FL: HART Plan Cuts Routes, Ups Fares

May 08--TAMPA -- Staring at a $1.5 million budget shortfall next year, HART will propose increasing some bus fares by 25 cents in November and combining and trimming some of the express routes.

The transit authority also is eyeing broader changes in the long run, including the possibility of switching from property tax-based funding to funding that comes from a sales tax.

The proposal comes at a delicate time for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. High gas prices have contributed to record ridership at the same time falling property values and declining operating grants have cut into funding.

As a result, the authority is looking at a cumulative budget shortfall of $23 million over the next five years.

On Monday, HART planners revealed their proposal to overcome those grim numbers. The agency's proposed budget for the next fiscal year calls for a $62 million operating budget, about 2 percent higher than this year. The $32 million capital budget would be about 20 percent less than this year but still includes $8 million for buses and vans.

Proposed changes to take effect in November include:

* One-way full fares would rise from $1.75, to $2, and one-way express fares would rise from $2.75, to $3. Discount increases would be 15 cents, with higher increases for long-term passes. One-way streetcar fares would remain at $2.50.

* Buses and service hours would be added to two busy routes: Route 34 between East Tampa and West Tampa, primarily along Hillsborough Avenue, and Route 30 between downtown, Tampa International Airport and Town 'N Country. Higher ridership has made it difficult for drivers to maintain schedules on those routes.

* Eliminating the Brandon Flex Service on Saturdays but extending regular service to Brandon Regional Hospital.

* Eliminating Route 28X between east Hillsborough County and downtown Tampa.

* Combining routes 50X and 61LX between Citrus Park and Town 'N Country and downtown Tampa.

* Ending express service on Presidents Day and Columbus Day while adopting Sunday service schedules on Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day.

Though HART board members on Monday applauded the proposal, some said the agency needs to better define its long-term plans.

"I don't see what is the vision — where do we want to be in 10 years?" HART board member and county Commissioner Sandy Murman said.

HART chief executive Philip Hale said the budget proposal unveiled at Monday's workshop was designed to allow the agency to "survive" the next few years.

"What we really have to do is move past that," Hale said, adding that "somebody is going to have to write a check" if the authority wants to expand to take advantage of the growing popularity of mass transit.

The budget will go to the full board on June 4.

Among other items in the proposal, HART's new route for a Bus Rapid Transit system called MetroRapid between the northeast suburbs and downtown Tampa is budgeted to begin operating in 2013. Those buses would make limited stops along one of HART's busiest routes.

The proposal for an east-west Bus Rapid Transit route, though, still has not been funded.

In addition, HART's union employees have operated without a contract for months and are negotiating for pay-level increases.

Turnover among bus operators, in particular those with two to three years of tenure who are finding more lucrative jobs as the economy improves, is on the rise, costing HART additional initial training costs of nearly $6,000 per employee. Beginning bus drivers make $11.91 an hour.

Copyright 2012 - Tampa Tribune, Fla.

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