TAMPA - When Sagar Patel moved to Tampa about a year ago, he expected to find the same type of bus service he enjoyed while growing up in the Indian city of Vadodara.
"The frequency there is every five minutes and the bus stop was right by my house," said Patel, a 26-year-old graduate student at the University of South Florida. "Since there are 40,000 students here and it's such a developed area, I was expecting it to have a good means of public transportation."
Instead, he discovered he has to walk 20 minutes to get to a bus stop. Buses run only every 30 minutes, and service stops at 9:30 p.m. He can't afford to buy a car, so he relies on friends to drive him to the grocery store, to the beach or to the nightlife in Ybor City.
All that could change if voters approve a 1 cent sales tax next month to pay for transportation improvements, including road upgrades, light rail and expanded bus service.
Thirty-two percent of the $180 million a year the tax is expected to generate will boost the bus service operated by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit.
And while it will take years to launch light rail and fix roads, changes in bus service will be nearly immediate, said Ron Govin, chairman of the HART board.
Right now, the agency has buses sitting idle because there isn't enough money to operate them, he said.
Property tax revenue to support the system fell by $8.2 million between 2007 and 2011. Meanwhile, ridership has increased from 10 million in 2005 to 12.3 million in 2010, its highest ever.
A budget boost means drivers will be hired and frequency of service will see a bump a few months after the Nov. 2 election, Govin said.
Plans call for running some buses 24 hours. Express bus service will be launched between Brandon and the West Shore area; Apollo Beach and MacDill Air Force Base; Brandon and USF.
But is there a demand for more routes and greater frequency?
"The demand is created by meeting the needs of the people," Govin said.
He noted that when HART boosted the frequency of a bus running between Temple Terrace and the University of South Florida from every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes, ridership picked up. And a new flex service added in Brandon, which provides door-to-door transportation in a limited geographic area, has proved quite popular.
If people can count on buses operating efficiently, he said, they will use them.
"People have a threshold," he said. "They're only going to wait so long. They're not going to walk up to a stop and wait for a bus if they just missed it and it's going to be an hour."
Right now, HART has 235 vehicles to cover a 1,000-square-mile county.
"That just doesn't cut it," Govin said. "It doesn't allow us to put the coverage out there that we need. There are areas of the county and cities that just don't get service."
As a point of comparison, supporters of the tax point to Dallas, where nearly 700 buses serve 700 square miles.
If the tax passes, plans call for adding 49 buses and 23 vans to the fleet over the next two years.
Shannon Calvert, founder of NoTaxForTracks.com, a group created to fight the 1-cent sales tax, remains unconvinced.
She objects most vigorously to the rail portion of the tax, saying that laying tracks is expensive, the trains won't be used and the routes can't be adjusted if they're not popular.
She supports expanding the bus system. But not with a new tax. She mentions dedicating gas tax money to bus service, or bringing in private companies.
And though she sees deficiencies in bus service, she doesn't support a massive expansion of the system.
"Start small. Find out actually if there's ridership," she said.
Robert Minthorn, who lives in Gibsonton, also said the bus component of the tax won't persuade him to support it.
"We do have a number of people in Gibsonton that depend on the buses," he said. "Current levels of service seem to meet most people's needs."
Others see it differently.
Pam Clouston, who lives in Lithia, said if the buses were frequent and reliable she might use them to visit friends in Tampa, or go to the mall or a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game.
"But it would have to run in a timely manner. You'd need to be able to expect a bus every 20 minutes," she said. "I grew up in Cleveland. And I will tell you if I wanted to go to the shopping center, I could walk across the street and get a bus and I knew one was going to come in 10 or 15 minutes. If I wanted to go downtown to a Cleveland Indians game or Browns football game, we took the bus. We never drove."
She recalls taking the bus to work at a mall when she was 16.
"I was able to get a job because I could take the bus," she said. "In order for our city, our county, to move forward, we do need a better mass transit system."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.
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