The Problem with Funding Transit in Tampa Bay Explained by 3 Tests

Three very different transportation tests were rolled out recently and the use and reaction to each shows exactly why we consistently failed to produce good transportation projects in Tampa Bay. To make it easier to look I have removed the descriptions or names of the tests themselves.

Test A: a new service between two centers

  • It cost around $1.45 Million for six months
  • Moved about 201 people people a day in January
  • It cost users $2.50 to $10 to use
  • 20 mile route
  • Diesel engines

Test B: has expanded service on a current system

  • It cost around $200,000 for six months
  • Increase of 198 people a day in January
  • It costs users about $2.50 to use
  • 2.7 mile route
  • Completely electric

Test C: Anew on-demand system with a specific focus

  • It cost around $560,000 (For an entire year)
  • Moved an additional 424 people a day in January
  • It is free to use
  • 1.4 mile maximim route
  • Completely electric

Which test is most successful and least successful? By riders it’s clearly Test C, but there is more to the story.

Each has their own clear advantages

  • Test A: Has the best cost per mile they moved their passengers.
  • Test B: Has the lowest cost per rider after revenue
  • Test C: Has the most number of riders

Each has their own clear issues:

  • Test A: Has the largest subsidy per ride
  • Test B: Has the lowest number of riders
  • Test C: Has the worst per mile cost by a large margin

Which test has been successful? That is a much more difficult question, but the press is very clear which one deserves the attention and

  • Test A: 15 articles since the test began (one negative, 14 positive/nuetral)
  • Test B: 2 articles since the test began (one negative and one positive/nuetral)
  • Test C: 3 articles since the test began (all positive/nuetral)

So what are these tests? All three of these tests operate in Downtown Tampa.

  • Test A: The Cross Bay Ferry from Downtown Tampa to Downtown St Pete
  • Test B: Morning Downtown Tampa Streetcar service
  • Test C: The Downtowner: An on demand electric cart service

Now none of these tests are spectacularly successful like the Kansas City Streetcar (6,088 riders per day) or the Houston MetroRail (38,600 riders a day) — but I would argue you get what you pay for. But, in total they move nearly 1,000 people a day in, out and around the largest employment center in Tampa Bay.

They all have their advantages and disadvantages and the question isn’t an either/or — or as some who run the Ferry test like to argue “my transit is better than your transit” — it’s that each of these systems have a different purpose and we should judge them that way. They are all successful if you look at the stated goals. The ferry wanted to test ridership demand and it does exist, especially on weekends. The streetcar morning service was designed to increase ridership — and it did compared to last year. The Downtowner wanted to get people around downtown and it moved the most people.

We should pay attention to each and not focus on hype.

Regretfully, that’s not what we do here in Tampa. We are always in search of silver bullet or the next technology solution. Which means it comes as no surprise that TECO service is already on the chopping block because only half the increase in ridership came in the morning hours (which would happen if people started using it to get to and from lunches or work) and people have decided it’s not a success by that metric. Yet people are already talking about more ferries.

We need to be pursuing the right transit for the right areas. But that means we’ll have different options across the board. But if you want to understand which service does best there is one transit service that beats all of these tests every day and in almost every category: HART’s normal bus service.

Here’s the same chart from earlier on

If you look at this you can see there are various measures that people can us. Circulators like the Downtowner and the Streetcar come at a high per mile cost but a lower cost per rider on average, but the Buses destroy all the system on cost per passenger mile. It even comes in less than the total over combined costs per mile of our average car (comes in at about $1.03 when you combine private and public expenses to drive your an average car in Hillsborough County). These are different services that provide for different uses and all have good reasons to be invested in the key questions is: what is your goal with your transportation dollars. Then measure your investment against that goal.

As long as Tampa Bay is looking for a silver bullet solution to all it’s goals it will bounce from train plan to bus plan to ferry plan to “AVs solving everything”— while actually solving almost nothing. We need a methodical approach that evaluates these tests and looks to build an actual transportation system on real metrics and concrete goals.

Then we need the political and community will to fund it.

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