Hillsborough bus agency in talks to take over free Downtowner shuttle service

TAMPA — The network of six-seat electric golf carts that gives free rides around downtown Tampa may be joining the transportation big leagues.

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit is in talks with the Tampa Downtown Partnership to take over running the Downtowner free shuttle service.

The partnership started the service in 2016, putting a fleet of 12 electric cars known as GEMs on downtown streets. The smartphone-app service averages about 500 riders per day and notched just under 280,000 rides in its first 18 months.

But running a transit system, however small, is a strange fit for a nonprofit group whose other initiatives include throwing events, sweeping streets, providing tourist guides dressed in yellow shirts and helping businesses with marketing.

HART, which has an annual budget of $91 million, runs the county’s bus agency.

“The partnership isn’t necessarily in the business of running a transit system,” said Karen Kress, the partnership’s director of transportation and planning. “We had an opportunity to get something going, and long term it would fit better under a transportation company.”

Talks are at an early stage, but HART could take over around the middle of 2019. The agency is already planning to scrap its In-Towner, a rubber-wheel trolley service that operates on many of the same streets as the Downtowner but has “extremely low ridership,” HART spokeswoman Vanessa Brooks said.

HART’s board of directors is scheduled to vote on scrapping the service at a meeting Monday.

It’s unclear whether the Downtowner would continue to be free under HART or what would happen to its drivers, who are employed by the Downtowner company.

“We want to take a thoughtful, methodical and holistic approach,” Brooks said in an email, “in developing a robust mobility solution for downtown Tampa that includes elements of the Downtowner, HART fixed-route bus service, the TECO streetcar and HART’s upcoming Autonomous Vehicle project all working together for a system for those that work, live and play in downtown.”

The Downtowner covers an area from Harbour Island north to Interstate 275, and from the University of Tampa area east to the Channel District. The partnership also has received initial approval from the City Council to extend the area north to take in part of the Tampa Heights area.

The service costs about $1 million per year. Initial funding sources included a $560,000 award from downtown and Channel District community development funds, and $450,000 over three years from the state. Downtown commercial office towers and hotels also pitch in with contributions.

At the least, the talks between HART and the partnership seem likely to result in an expansion of the Downtowner’s fleet this summer.

HART has offered to provide the nonprofit with four sleek Tesla cars to use for the service. The cars were leased for a pilot program known as Hyperlink, designed to give people rides to and from bus stops in the University area.

Hyperlink was lauded by HART as the first partnership between Tesla and a transit agency. Passengers, who hailed a ride using a smartphone app, were charged $3 a trip.

The decision to end the program was made after HART sought bids for a new vendor to run it.

“We found through the process that this business model is not sustainable,” Brooks said.

Cesar Hernandez, a transportation advocate, was government relations specialist for HART when Hyperlink was set up. It helped people in the low-income University area who live too far from bus stops to be able to take the bus, he said.

“The whole basis of the project was that the area that needed the most would be able to benefit,” Hernandez said. “It’s sad that it will go away.”

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