View Full Version : Can Tampa's mass transit make it through these rough times?
April 2nd, 2009, 02:31 PM
As I was just mentioning on the Tampa LRT thread, Tampa Bay's mass transit system still faces much uncertainty due to the worsening economy. However, I still see some light at the end of the tunnel, as many transit agencies strive to make improvements with smaller budgets.
We know that even without LRT on board, that we can still have a much better mass transit system than we do now. Its going to take a lot of creative thinking among the transit agencies and the governments alike, but it will also involve working with scarce financial resources while refraining from sacrificing too much service.
We know that HART will be placing its first BRT system, that is Tampa Bay's first BRT system, into service by 2011. It is then that we will see whether or not those Gillig BRT buses are able to whisk people up and down Nebraska Ave. I know there are skeptics here, but we need to at least give them a chance. The streetcar system is also slated for expansion during the next two years, which will hopefully bring more people into using the system and in turn, boost business for Channelside & Ybor.
As for TBARTA, it is certainly a white elephant as it is right now. But I do see much room for improvement. As the economy lossens up during the next few years, I see TBARTA getting a little more funding room so that they can better voice their mission to the people and continue to push their master plan on the right track. PSTA and SCAT are also presenting many improvements. In Pinellas, PSTA is introducing new buses next year (HART is also) and is moving along with their own BRT plans. SCAT also has a BRT vision and is hoping to increase service and grow their fleet as well.
And let's not forget that all three agencies are continuing their "transformations" if you will. Thanks to the stimulus, HART will be able to make further improvements to their bus fleet during the course of the next three years. The aging fleet of Gillig Phantom buses will finally be thrown out and the rest of the fleet will receive some much needed TLC. PSTA and SCAT are also continuing to make improvements to their exisiting fleets.
Lord knows what will become of PCPT and The Hernando Express. Both these agencies face imminent danger because the funding is simply not there. I know that the two agencies desperately want to expand and attract new riders. But without the neccessary funding in place, these agencies may be forced to sacrifice more than what they are willing to give up.
April 8th, 2009, 09:12 PM
THE Bus budget debate ends in limbo
By Barbara Behrendt, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Wednesday, April 8, 2009
BROOKSVILLE — Some issues in government simply have no easy solutions. In Hernando County, the poster child for that reality is the public transit system known as THE Bus.
Members of the Hernando County Budget and Finance Committee on Tuesday hotly debated the future of THE Bus but were unable to get a majority to agree what to recommend to county commissioners.
That means that the County Commission will be on its own when it takes up the issue April 28 to decide whether to cut service to reduce costs, and whether to accept five new buses paid for with federal stimulus dollars and the 10-year commitment that acceptance could mean.
Bus ridership is not at the level of other similar-sized transit systems, and a vocal segment of the community wants to see THE Bus parked permanently. But the system is also staunchly supported by local residents who have no other transportation option.
On Tuesday, the budget committee was charged with listening to a detailed report on the county's transit system and making recommendations to the County Commission on how the plan might be changed to save money and how to deal with the aging fleet of buses.
Committee members considered a motion to cut bus service in half by having buses run every two hours rather than every hour, which would reduce expenses by $420,000, $142,000 of that local funds.
But when the members learned that most of the bus fleet was already past its prime, there were questions about how to even provide that reduced level of service.
Hernando County is eligible for five new buses as part of the federal stimulus package, but the county would have to commit to using those buses throughout their normal lifespan, which could be 10 years.
"I can't see taking five vehicles just because they're free,'' said committee member Anna Liisa Covell, who also balked at the other alternative, which was to rehab buses, once again committing to seven more years of THE Bus. But she could not find the support to simply end bus service altogether.
Committee members talked about ways to try to attract riders, such as running buses to major employers, running buses into subdivisions and seeking private partners to help pay the costs.
Adding more services will run up the cost to the county, warned Ron Pianta, the county's planning director.
Beyond the cost factor, Brooksville's vice mayor, Lara Bradburn, urged the committee to consider how gutting the county's bus service would affect Hernando's ability to participate in and get funding for regional transportation projects.
"The message is so very clear that without a viable transit system including THE Bus, we will not be included'' in many of the aspects of the regional system, Bradburn said. "We cannot afford to lose our 'in' to regional planning.''
Committee chairwoman Rose Rocco agreed.
"It is a very important factor for our growth and development,'' she said.
Ultimately, the only transit vote on which the committee could get a unanimous response was to forward the minutes of the discussion to the county commission without a recommendation on how to proceed.
In other business, the committee votes to recommend to the commission that in-house county staff be used to design and build a new courtroom on the third floor of the county government building, in an area now used as a jury assembly room.
The move would set the cost of the project above the previously budgeted staff cost at an estimated $140,000 and it would take a year. Farming the job out to an outside design and construction crew could cost $622,000 and take 20 months.
The move generated some questions about why the county staff would be available to do the work at a time when private construction crews have been idled by the slow economy and could use a job.
County Attorney Garth Coller said the county could allow a job that size to be done in-house if it were approved by the County Commission and seen as a beneficial choice to taxpayers.
The committee also voted to recommend to the commission to approve an expansion in the county's Animal Services facility at the cost of about $300,000. The expansion would allow the county's code enforcement office to move to Animal Services.
Committee members also got their first look at some of the other county services that could see cuts as Hernando officials try to find $10 million worth of spending cuts in next year's budget to make up for revenue shortfalls.
Several committee members expressed concern about discussions to possibly hand library management over to a private company, but the staff made no presentations on that issue Tuesday. Committee member John Scharch expressed concern about the idea from research he had done indicating that such a move would hurt long-time library employees.
Committee members also discussed cutting lime rock roads out of the general fund budget.
Deputy county administrator Larry Jennings told them they would have more time to discuss those issues and general topics, such as a new policy on budget reserves, whether to increase fees or taxes and whether to offer any pay raises to employees, at their next meeting May 5.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.
[Last modified: Apr 07, 2009 09:15 PM]
This is pitiful. With not many riders onboard this and PCPT, we might just see both agencies fizzle out within two years.... :ohno:
April 14th, 2009, 12:13 PM
Jolley Trolley's future dim if Clearwater ends funding
By Mike Brassfield, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Tuesday, April 14, 2009
CLEARWATER — For nearly 30 years, the bright red and yellow Jolley Trolley has ferried passengers around Clearwater Beach. Riders like the charm of the little buses, which sport wooden benches and open-air sides that lets the beach breeze sweep through.
Now the Jolley Trolley is struggling to survive, its existence threatened by budget cuts.
"We've got our backs up against the wall here," said Robert Longenecker, who recently became the trolley's new president.
The trolley service depends heavily on aid from the city of Clearwater. Because money is tight, the city reduced the trolley's annual subsidy to $150,000 this year from $280,000 last year. It's leaning toward cutting that to zero in the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
The Jolley Trolley carries about 100,000 passengers a year, but Clearwater officials note that the Suncoast Beach Trolley operated by the county's transit agency offers a similar service.
The Jolley Trolley has two buses circulating through Clearwater Beach, Island Estates and Sand Key. The Suncoast Trolley stops in those same areas on its route between downtown Clearwater and Pass-a-Grille — although it doesn't go into north Clearwater Beach like the Jolley Trolley does, and it doesn't go into Island Estates as often as the Jolley Trolley.
Longenecker and others argue that the Jolley Trolley is worth saving because it's an important tourist amenity that contributes to Clearwater Beach's unique atmosphere.
They're lobbying city officials to keep some funding for it. They're brainstorming a new business plan. They're selling off three trolley buses out of a fleet of nine.
They'd like to start running the trolley into downtown Clearwater again, although they're not sure they can afford to. And they're exploring a partnership with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which operates the Suncoast Trolley.
Without a city subsidy, the Jolley Trolley might fold or it might operate seasonally, Longenecker said.
"Rather than go from $150,000 to zero, can we have some sort of compromise?" he said. "We think that going seasonal would just be part of a death spiral."
The trolley, which operates as a nonprofit independent business, has a $400,000 budget and about 20 full- and part-time employees. Aside from the city subsidy, it earns income from charters for weddings and special events; advertising on the buses; and the $2 fares that it charges passengers. (The Suncoast Trolley charges $1.75.)
Longenecker, a retired executive who spent 32 years with UPS and now lives in Island Estates, recently became the trolley's president. He was appointed to the $50,000-a-year job by the Jolley Trolley's board, whose nine members are appointed by three Clearwater Beach-area civic associations. Longenecker was a board member.
He replaces longtime trolley president Bill Kirbas, 83, who stepped down to become the business' director of operations. Kirbas worries about the trolley's future.
"The fight's not over. But they are talking about contributing zero, so if we don't get funding we are out of business. You just can't charge what it would take to break even," Kirbas said. "It makes me sad. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get it going."
In June, City Manager Bill Horne will present a preliminary budget to the Clearwater City Council that will recommend zero dollars for the trolley.
It's ultimately the council's decision. But Horne has to slash $7 million to $13 million from the city budget and is looking at laying off employees and shuttering facilities. The trolley is a relatively low priority, he said.
"With declining revenue, the city will be doing fewer things," said Horne, who suggests the trolley seek financial support from beach businesses that benefit from its existence.
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson knows all about the trolley. He's a Clearwater Beach resident and a PSTA board member. He said last year's spike in gas prices, which hit $4 a gallon, ate up a chunk of the trolley's bank account.
"That's what really put the wooden stake in their heart quickly," Gibson said. "Now they're in a position where their reserves are precariously low."
Like Horne, Gibson suggested that the Jolley Trolley follow the model of the Looper trolley in downtown St. Petersburg, which draws some of its support from private businesses in its area.
Staff photographer Doug Clifford contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.
April 20th, 2009, 08:50 PM
SunRail could face its biggest challenge yet....the global recession...
Could SunRail face another delay?
Monday, April 20, 2009
TALLAHASSEE (Bay News 9) -- A proposed commuter rail through central Florida could face yet another delay.
Transportation and economic leaders are meeting in Tallahassee for the second time to discuss the SunRail project. A meeting last week was postponed when representatives realized how many people were signed up to speak on the proposed 61-mile commuter rail line through the heart of central Florida.
Now officials are saying the project could be postponed. The State House is looking for money to balance the budget. Part of their plan would include cutting the transportation trust fund by $400 million. The SunRail project would depend on that fund to get off the ground.
The House and Senate are at an impasse on the budget, which complicates the process. Some are saying it may take a special legislative session to tackle the budget.
As a result, the vote on the SunRail project may not come to pass.
Committee chair Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has been backing the project, but now, he said he has a lot more to worry about.
"They'd have to delay SunRail for many years to come, because we only have - and I don't say only - we have $500 million in the trust fund to build roads," he said. "If the House prevails in sweeping $400 million, there'll be virtually no dollars left to build any new roads and definitely no dollars left to move forward on SunRail."
Gov. Charlie Crist could possibly stop by the hearing. He is in favor of the project but has been low-key about his support.
SunRail opponents continue to take issue with the liability of the project. They said the CSX railroad company would not be held responsible if one of its freight trains were responsible for a collision with a commuter rail car.
Leaders are expected to take comments on the project for several hours this afternoon and then put the issue up for a vote. Tune in to Bay News 9 at 5 p.m. to find out more about the hearing.
We can clearly see now that it won't be political ramblings or the liability issue that will strike down SunRail. It will be the global recession and its impact on everything that will derail the project indefinitely. If the postponement does become a reality, SunRail could be delayed for years...
April 29th, 2009, 01:32 PM
Hernando County to slash THE Bus service
By Barbara Behrendt, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Wednesday, April 29, 2009
BROOKSVILLE — Faced with a budget crisis and concerns that ridership isn't justifying costs, the County Commission on Tuesday cut service by THE Bus in half, a move that could save the county $142,000.
Commissioners also decided to reject five new heavy-duty buses available through federal economic stimulus dollars, deciding instead to spend county money to refurbish three existing buses for $45,000 each.
A report detailed four cost-cutting changes to THE Bus, and the board chose the one with the deepest cut: Buses that now hit their stops one hour apart would switch to two hours apart.
No date was set for when the changes would take place. The commissioners sent the issue back to staff to iron out the details.
The changes in route times would cut costs by $420,000. Since state and federal funds pay the lion's share of those costs, Hernando County would save an estimated $142,000.
County Administrator David Hamilton acknowledged that expanding bus service would likely increase ridership, but that now is not the right time to do so.
"We're not into an expansion mode. We're contracting,'' Hamilton said. "The budget is the overriding concern.''
County commissioners heard from residents again telling them to expand, not reduce, service. Other residents complained that the buses are so under-used that public transportation will not work in Hernando County and that THE Bus should be parked.
But commissioners were reluctant to end the service, especially since the transit report showed that many riders of THE Bus would switch to the Transportation Disadvantaged program if THE Bus was parked.
Because the TD service costs so much more to provide, the county's consultant told the board it could cost Hernando $1.4 million to provide that transportation. The county's portion of funding for THE Bus is $511,000 annually.
Hamilton also noted that keeping mass transit means the county can still be part of the regional transportation planning process.
Brooksville Vice Mayor Lara Bradburn also pointed out that not only would the county miss out on regional planning but also road funds, economic development opportunities and building the community. Without those things, "we'll begin to falter even farther,'' Bradburn said.
Commissioners also rejected the chance to seek federal stimulus dollars to replace the county's aging bus fleet. But they rejected the idea because they worried that they would be tied to bus service for the next 10 years by taking the free buses.
Instead, the county had already planned on refurbishing buses. With the change in service approved by the commission, there will be three buses refurbished with hopes of giving them several more years of usefulness.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.
[Last modified: Apr 28, 2009 08:45 PM]
May 13th, 2009, 03:58 PM
THE Bus can carry Hernando County in the right direction
By Dan DeWitt, Times Columnist
In Print: Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Hernando's subdivisions are scattered from Ridge Manor to Hernando Beach. Our stores and restaurants are strewn along miles of highway. We don't have one employment center; we have at least a half dozen.
All of which makes mass transit pretty much unworkable for now, County Administrator David Hamilton said two weeks ago in a meeting at the Times office:
"We have a development pattern more friendly to golf carts than public transportation.''
That was the main reason for his recommendation — later supported by a unanimous vote of the County Commission — to cut the frequency of the THE Bus' scheduled stops from every hour to every two hours.
In a big city, where hubs of housing, jobs, stores and offices are just a few blocks apart, fares might pay one-fourth of the cost of public transportation. In Hernando, with fewer riders and more miles to cover, that fraction is more like one-twentieth.
Yes, these numbers prove Hamilton's point. But they also show the inefficiency of our development pattern — which is the best argument against cutting bus service.
See, Hernando, along with much of Florida, developed the way it did mostly because it lacked public transportation. Cars can go just about anywhere. So can development that depends on them. In our county it has.
What can we do to create a community where public transportation works? Well, build and maintain public transportation.
"It is kind of a chicken-or-egg situation,'' said county demographic planner David Miles.
The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority plans not only to serve the population of an eight-county area, including Hernando, but reshape it, said spokeswoman Cindy Sharpe:
"What we're talking about is that mass transportation will transform this region into something better.''
The authority's master plan includes a map of red lines showing the congested roads that — absent regional public transportation — will choke the region's commerce by 2050.
If we do build mass transit, on the other hand, we'll be rewarded with the kind of walkable neighborhoods that form naturally around bus and rail stops.
It's happened all over the country. Investment poured into the core of Plano, Texas, after the suburb was linked to Dallas by rail in 2002. Washington, D.C., was once criticized as a sterile town of bureaucrats. After the completion of its Metro, which opened in 1976 and is now the second-busiest commuter rail system in the country, "it became a world-class city,'' Miles said.
No, Hernando isn't Washington or even Plano. But it is reasonable to think that developers might build apartments or shopping centers to capitalize on regular bus service, especially if they know these will someday connect with TBARTA routes leading to, for example, Tampa International Airport.
This kind of development is what our planning laws have unsuccessfully tried to force on builders for decades. And THE Bus could be a start. But not as it is now, and certainly not as the skeleton system — used only by desperate riders — that it will become when the new cuts take hold.
Think of it that way, and the $142,000 we saved doesn't seem like a bargain.
[Last modified: May 11, 2009 07:24 PM]