TAMPA — Lawrence Woodard is confronting a new kind of cancel culture.
Woodard, 60, uses mass transit. He catches the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Route 45 bus at North Boulevard and Waters Avenue, travels southbound to connect to Bus 34 at Rome and Hillsborough avenues, then heads west to his job at Tampa Print Services.
At least that’s what Woodard tries to do. But three times in the past two weeks, he said, the bus didn’t show at its appointed time. It wasn’t a minute or two late. It didn’t come at all.
The transit agency, known commonly by the acronym HART, refers to it as redlining. It calls off an entire run along a route because of a driver shortage or other cause.
Riders call it something else. Getting to work late.
“It’s kind of frustrating to pay for a bus ticket and end up having to walk … or stand there waiting for a bus that’s not coming, especially when you don’t know it’s not coming,” said Woodard.
How often it happens is not known. An agency spokesperson said the authority “doesn’t keep data where we track percentage absenteeism or redlined routes.”
“If there are specific routes that are scheduled to show up and they’re not showing up, that’s a problem,’ said Hillsborough Commissioner Mariella Smith, chairperson of the authority’s board of directors. “We need to be able to provide reliable service for people to get to where they need to go. That’s our mission and if we’re falling down on that we certainly need to address it.”
Scott Weakley, 57, shared experiences similar to Woodard.
Weakley said his morning bus, Route 1 on Florida Avenue, redlined two consecutive trips Tuesday morning, failing to show at its posted schedule time at Fletcher Avenue at 7:07 a.m. and 7:20 a.m. When he finally got to Hillsborough Avenue, he had to wait again to transfer to Bus 34.
“They just kill certain buses and you don’t know, so you just have to sit there and wait,” Weakley said.
The union representing the agency’s more than 600 drivers, maintenance workers, customers service representatives and others offered an explanation for the redlining. The agency adopted a 300-route schedule in November, but employs 250 drivers.
The authority has “redlined routes that leaves our customers in stressful situations,” said Latisha Jones, a paratransit operator and president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1593.
“Operators are being forced to work when they are fatigued. Bus operators have been working 68 to 72 hours a week,” she said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. “A bus markup (schedule) was created for over 300 runs and you don’t have but 250 drivers so that meant runs were going to be covered by operators on their days off. Still wasn’t enough to cover all the open runs.”
The agency didn’t dispute the numbers provided by the union.
Jones asked for retroactive pay increases when she delivered a similar message about overworked employees to the authority’s board of directors April 5.
“Would you continue to work where you are not appreciated?” Jones said in a statement read to the board. “Would you continue to work for an authority who has not given you a livable wage in 3½ years?”
Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp, a member of the authority’s board, said she discussed the redline issue with Chief Executive Officer Adelee Le Grand a few months ago.
“I think HART’s had extremely hard times and the drivers have been underpaid and understaffed. I know they (Le Grand and staff) are working very hard to shore that up. It’s something we’re going to have to deal with head on,” said Kemp.
Meanwhile, spokesperson Carson Chambers said the authority is aware of complaints about the technology shortcomings of the app it uses. OneBusAway is intended to provide real time information to riders about bus locations. It is frequently inaccurate, said Weakley and Woodard.
“It’s useless. You don’t know whether the bus is coming or not,” said Weakley.
And both said the transit agency’s reliability issues aren’t limited to mornings. Woodard recalled getting to his transfer location on his evening ride only to learn the next bus was 35 minutes away.
He walked two miles home.