FL: HART Suggests Funding Swap

May 22--TAMPA -- Hillsborough transit planners have proposed a fare increase and service cuts to make up a budget deficit during the next five years.

But looking ahead, HART leaders are now considering expansion of the system to keep pace with a growing number of riders — in part, by changing where the money comes from.

In a report released Monday, HART suggests asking voters to approve a new sales tax to fund the system and eliminate the portion of the property tax now dedicated to transit.

Their projections show the swap would boost HART revenue to help the agency buy as many as 250 more buses and add several hundred miles of new routes, including more than 70 miles of bus rapid transit.

Bus rapid transit uses large buses that can resemble trains and can operate on regular streets or designated bus lanes.

The new report is intended as a point of departure for discussion, a "what-if" plan, not an endorsement of any particular strategy, HART chief executive Philip Hale said.

HART planners also devised scenarios involving only voters from the city of Tampa, including the creation of a $47 million streetcar loop, extending the line 2.7 miles north through downtown and east to Ybor City to reach current end points.

Officials have said it would cost too much to shut down the streetcar because money from $55 million in federal grants would have to be returned. But without serving more of downtown and running in a loop, ridership won't grow, officials have said.

The report released Monday addressed a dilemma HART and transit companies nationwide face, Hale said.

"The majority of all transit systems face overloading," Hale said. "And revenue is not keeping up with demand."

In Hillsborough County, revenue projections have declined because of drops in state and federal contributions and falling property tax collections, which are not expected to turn around until 2014.

Bus service has been strained by record-setting passenger demand, attributed to people trying to save on gas in a poor economy and growing acceptance of transit among young workers and others.

Buses often have standing room only and commonly arrive late because they're stopping for passengers, in some cases, at two of every three bus stops. This can cause riders to miss connecting buses.

HART's short-term budget plans, released two weeks ago, improve service on some busy routes, including stretches between West and East Tampa along Hillsborough Avenue and Town 'N County, Tampa International Airport and downtown.

Board members on May 7 said they cannot continue to cut service and maintain their mission to serve the county's residents, in particular those who rely on HART to reach their jobs.

"Where do we want to be in 10 years," Hillsborough County commissioner and HART board member Sandy Murman asked Monday.

Light rail options were not included in the scenarios HART revealed Monday because it wasn't included in a long-range plan HART produced a year ago, after voters defeated a sales tax referendum on light rail and other transportation improvements.

Among ideas now being evaluated are a local-option gas tax the county commission would have to approve, increasing property-tax rates, and creating a regional surtax of up to 1 cent.

One suggested level of improvement would add 81 buses to the fleet of 186 through fiscal 2015 and extend bus routes by 11 miles.

Another level would add 250 buses by fiscal 2022.

HART's board will consider the long-term funding proposals in the next few months before making any recommendations. The fiscal 2013 budget will be approved in September following public input sessions.

Copyright 2012 - Tampa Tribune, Fla.

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