New proposed bus routes to serve USF, downtown Tampa

Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/TNS
·4 min read

TAMPA — Midday on E Fowler Avenue, cars and trucks plow down eight lanes of asphalt. A smattering of pedestrians traverse the sidewalks with little shade, sometimes pausing to wait for the occasional bus.

Here, on one of the busiest corridors in the city, slicing through an area marked by the highest rates of zero-car households in Hillsborough County, it isn’t that easy to get around. Two days ago, the county’s transit agency unveiled a proposal to they say could help: two new bus circulators.

One would cover three miles of this section of uptown, near the University of South Florida. It is an area dense with places people need to reach for work, school and medical appointments, but too often cannot reach safely and swiftly without a car.

The other proposed route would cover about three miles of downtown. This could meet demand previously covered by the Tampa Downtowner. The on-demand service provided almost 700,000 rides during its five-year lifecycle, before funding ran out in April 2021.

The proposed routes — just concepts at this point — are part of a broader reconfiguration of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority’s network set to be rolled out early next year.

Neither the fare nor the frequency of the circulator routes has been determined yet, according to agency spokesperson Frank Wyszynski. “We are still looking to obtain funding for these services,” he said.

Circulator bus transit is a short-distance, fixed-route loop, often taking riders around a specific metro area with major destinations. St. Petersburg, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., are among the American cities with circulators.

The news has been welcomed by planning, development and city transit officials.

“Our goal is to make getting around Tampa a more comfortable experience with an emphasis on better connections and safer streets,” said Tampa Mobility Department director Vik Bhide.

People without access to a car face a sprawling and dangerous built environment. Tampa Bay is one of the deadliest places in America to be a pedestrian, according to the nonprofit Smart Growth America.

“Downtown neighborhoods are among our region’s fastest growing places to live, work and visit, and the streetcar’s one million riders show that transit works in Tampa,” said Mayor Jane Castor. “Downtown circulators are an important next step.”

The proposed downtown circulator includes an east-west Route A and a north-south Route B, helping to ease travel between major city landmarks. At present, it can take half an hour to get between Sparkman Wharf and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts by bus, or 40 minutes on foot. In a car, the drive is less than 10 minutes.

“Any addition of public transportation to campus is a positive thing,” said Steven Fernandez, a member of Hillsborough County’s planning commission and a professor in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at USF.

But he noted that the proposed uptown service seems to lean more toward servicing research buildings and medical facilities.

“There is still a large portion of campus that wouldn’t be able to utilize this line” without connecting to the University’s bus transit system, the Bull Runner, he said. This could mean long, multi-stop journeys for staff.

The uptown pilot program will be potentially funded by the Florida Department of Transportation, Hillsborough County and the Tampa Innovation Partnership. The downtown routes could be unrolled with money generated from some of the city’s Community Redevelopment Areas, according to Monday’s meeting.

“It’s an opportunity for us to grow without adding any additional expenses on the HART side,” Omar Alvarado, the agency’s chief delivery officer, said of the proposed circulators at the meeting.

Hillsborough’s transit authority has long been one of the most underfunded transit agencies in the nation for an area of its size. Officials are hoping a transportation sales tax up for vote in November will aid budget shortfalls. The agency expects to both spend and earn about $114 million in fiscal 2023.

In 2017, the agency pared down its bus network to save money with a controversial redesign called Mission MAX, which was supposed to make riding the bus better for about 80% of riders. But the move left some USF students scrambling to find alternate transportation, the University’s student newspaper reported at the time.

Last January, the agency cut eight regular and flex routes, reducing frequency on five routes and adjusting the stops and directions of 16 others. They represented about a 3% service cut, including reducing total revenue hours for bus service by close to 15,000 hours.

“It’s a new time for HART,” board chairperson Pat Kemp said at Monday’s meeting, following the announcement of the proposed circulators. If the proposals are approved, the circulators will be implemented in February.