Jackson Heights leader calls for public transit improvements in East Tampa

The mid-October sun still has a couple hours of shine to offer when Jackson Heights Neighborhood Association President Fran Tate greets me at the NFL YET Center in East Tampa.

My arrival is preceded by rain, making for a damp and steamy afternoon no matter what you are doing. I'm getting to know the neighborhood the best way we imagine possible: by joining Ms. Tate, who's called Jackson Heights home for 16 years, on a walk-and-talk tour.

On our walk, we'll explore the question 83 Degrees Media posed that prompted Tate to invite me on this stroll: What does the current state of transportation look like for East Tampa residents?

During our walk, details of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Biden signed into law on Nov. 15, were under negotiation in Congress. Moving forward, the fate of these monies will be decided largely by state governments.

Florida will likely begin to receive funds in early 2022. Meanwhile, in historically redlined and consequently underserved Black and Brown neighborhoods across the U.S., advocates like Tate are engaged in a decades-long struggle to receive a slice of the pie in their communities. Tate hopes state officials and local agencies will prioritize projects that center on what she identifies as an overdue need to improve public transit systems in East Tampa.

Tate invites 83 Degrees readers and Tampa Bay area decision-makers to walk with her; observe, ask questions, listen -- and envision equitable transportation solutions.

New roundabouts help pedestrians and motorists, but investment in public transit lags

Middle schoolers shouldering backpacks and team sports gear pour into the NFL YET Center, excitedly dissecting the events of their school day, as Tate and I depart on our walk. We planned it at rush hour to experience the hustle-and-bustle of a typical Monday. We'll start at the HART Route 5 bus stop, located outside the YET Center at the 34th Street and Lake Avenue roundabout, and follow the bus route on foot for nearly one mile south to the East 21st Avenue roundabout.

Jackson Heights is bordered roughly at 40th Street to the east, Hillsborough Avenue to the north, and 30th Street to the west. A series of City of Tampa 34th St. Safety Improvement roundabouts, installed in 2020, run through the center of this predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood populated by single and multi-family residences, churches, and a smattering of small businesses.

Tate notes that 34th Street sidewalks receive daily foot traffic from kids who attend after-school extracurriculars at the NFL YET Center, as well as seniors who also utilize the recreation center, walk to nearby churches and visit with neighbors. She says the new roundabouts help pedestrians -- the most vulnerable population sharing the roadway -- stay safe by calming traffic speeds without sacrificing travel time for motorists. 

Tate sees little evidence, however, that the travel needs of Jackson Heights' public transit riders are being met. 

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that between 12% and 14% of all workers in East Tampa's Census Tracts 34 and 35 rely on public transit to get to and from their jobs -- significantly higher than the average rate in both the City of Tampa (2%) and Hillsborough County (1%).

Tate has been working from home for approximately 10 years, but says that when she commuted from Jackson Heights to her job at Moffitt Cancer Center in the past, the HART bus was her first choice. She occasionally drove, but preferred public transit because it was faster during morning and afternoon rush hours, it felt safer, and car parking was limited near Moffitt.

"I could get on the bus and have a rest, read a book, and let the capable bus driver get me to and from where I needed to go without worrying about finding parking when I got there," Tate says.

These days, Tate says she observes fewer buses running the route in Jackson Heights. Reduced bus frequency means longer wait times at bus stops and higher stakes for public transit commuters who can't afford to miss their ride to work, she says.

Bus stops without shelter raise daily travel challenges, questions about equity

ABC7 reports: "Floridians who take public transportation spend an extra 77.9% of their time commuting and non-White households are 3.5 times more likely to commute via public transportation. Based on formula funding alone, Florida would expect to receive $2.6 billion over five years to improve public transportation options across the state."

While the new roundabouts are a fine step forward in road design, Tate says the bus stops located along the same stretch of 34th Street are an ongoing concern for Jackson Heights residents. Like every stop along our 0.8 mile walk through the neighborhood's core, the first we visit outside the NFL YET Center on E. Lake Ave. offers no awning or natural shade cover -- just a bare bench in the Florida sun with rain from mid-afternoon storms pooled in its seat.

Bus riders might find shelter inside the rec center or at a nearby corner store, Tate remarks, but: "if the driver doesn't see someone waiting at the bus stop, they won't stop and you've missed your bus," so it's better to stay put, rain or shine, she says.

Walking south on 34th Street, we encounter another uncovered bench at the East 28th Avenue HART Route 5 bus stop. At least in this moment, Tate observes, an overcast sky provides some relief from the sun. It's October in Florida, so the heat index is in the 90s-degrees Fahrenheit, as opposed to the 100s-plus where it lingers during summer.

Like scores of public benches throughout the United States, the next bus stop located two blocks south at East 26th Avenue exemplifies hostile architecture. It's a narrow and sun-weathered, slatted wooden bench, tightly bifurcated by metal armrests. Tate mentions this stop was relocated to its current location after initial placement in front of a residential property. It was the only covered stop she remembers along this stretch of 34th Street, but when the bench and route signage moved a few meters north, the awning vanished without explanation.

When she rides the HART #5 line, Tate notices covered bus shelters appear frequently outside of Jackson Heights. The further north the route travels toward Busch Gardens and USF, the more she sees. 

Jackson Heights Neighborhood Association embraces teamwork to build community

Tate says "hello" and asks "how are you?" to everyone we meet on our walk. She's pleased to see Jackson Heights Neighborhood Association signs appearing on front lawns as membership grows. What started as a crime watch group several years ago coalesced into the Jackson Heights Neighborhood Association (JHNA) in 2019 -- having grown from fewer than 10 members, to between 30 and 40 participating families today. Tate also chairs the East Tampa CRA Community Advisory Committee. 

JHNA facilitates community meetings where the Tampa City Council, Tampa Police Department, Code Enforcement, HART, and other agencies have an open invitation to participate. Following a pandemic interlude, these meetings are back in session, taking place at the Open Cafe at 3222 N. 34th St. at 6:30 p.m. on the third Thursday of every other month. The next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 18, 2022.

Tate says the meetings serve as a meaningful access point for residents to voice concerns and develop solutions alongside local officials. When some residents expressed anxieties about navigating the new 34th Street roundabouts, for instance, Tate says TPD developed a program that provides training for motorists to practice driving in them.

JHNA also organizes quarterly beautification cleanups, participates in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, partners with City of Tampa Parks and Recreation to offer mailbox "take-a-book-leave-a-book" free libraries at seven recreation facilities throughout East Tampa, and arranges lunch and breakfast donations for first responders at their local police precinct and fire station. In 2020, JHNA collaborated with neighboring community organizations and artist James Vann to produce the Black Lives Matter street mural at East 21st Ave and North 15th Street for Mayor Castor's Art on the Block Mural Day.

Our stroll is interrupted by a fenced-in pack of chihuahuas who guard their yard with a chorus of frantic chirps. Their owners shush the pups from the porch and greet us with a flash of recognition: "Hey! Aren't you Ms. Fran Tate?" The neighbor is concerned about tree limbs in her yard tangling into power lines in the street, and Tate tells her about a tree-trimming program funded by the East Tampa Community Redevelopment Area (CRA). 

Tate shares her cell number so she can help her neighbor apply, and then we're back en route toward East 22nd Avenue -- the final HART Route 5 stop we'll visit. This stop offers curb-cut access for a wheelchair user or baby stroller, but again, no weather shelter. 

Two churches, St. John's Cathedral and 34th Street Church of God, are nearby. It takes little imagination to consider how uncomfortable it might be to wait for the bus after the morning service, as summer days heat up to sweltering, while wearing one's Sunday best -- or on the way to work as a Port of Tampa longshoreman clad in heavy utility-wear and steel-toed boots.

Although the East Tampa CRA has resources to help residents maintain and beautify their homes, Tate expresses disappointment and frustration that HART infrastructure falls outside the CRA's ability to assist.

"I feel that HART could listen to the community more. More surveys and more community conversations in our area would be appreciated. Hold a town hall around the different Neighborhood Association locations: Ragan Park, Fair Oaks, the NFL YET Center, and in the V.M. Ybor area -- or come to our meetings," Tate suggests. 

"Host a listen-and-learn type of seminar and ask the community: 'What more can we give you that we're not giving?' I think that would be beneficial -- but I haven't seen it happen lately."

New development raises property values, taxes, while existing infrastructure languishes

On the return trip, we stray off 34th Street and meander along residential streets. Tate reminds me to keep my eyes on the sidewalk to sidestep uneven cracks. She points out newly constructed houses selling for between $250,000 and $300,000. Their fresh facades make for odd visual juxtaposition alongside broken sidewalks and weary bus stop infrastructure. 

Tate is curious, as homeowners' property values and taxes rise with the new homes being constructed and sold in her neighborhood, when will sidewalks be repaved? When might bus stops receive shelter? She wants to know: Will funds from the Infrastructure and Jobs Act pave the way for improvements?

Children who attend the local Potter Elementary School should have sidewalks keeping them away from traffic, Tate says, but presently, inadequate and incomplete sidewalks require kids to cross motorist-heavy arterial roadways to find safe spots to walk. 

In order to thrive, Tampa's workforce requires more robust public transit systems

In addition to safe passage for kids traveling to and from local schools, district school bus stops and the NFL YET Center, Tate underscores a critical need for safe and efficient transportation options for household breadwinners. The vast majority of jobs are located miles outside Jackson Heights' working class suburbs, which means that in order to own or rent the roofs over their heads, and to pay their state and local taxes -- most Jackson Heights residents require a way to travel to their jobs. Many, however, do not own cars, Tate explains.

Former Florida House Representative Ed Narain represented District 61 -- which includes East and West Tampa and the University parts of Tampa in Central and Northern Hillsborough County -- in 2014-2016. Like Tate, Narain urges state and local policymakers to prioritize public transit options that meet the needs of Tampa's growing workforce -- particularly in neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, where laborers depend on buses to reach jobs located across town.

"Currently, bus service is inadequate for the needs of the job market. We're talking about people in parts of East Tampa and the rest of the region not having access to jobs within 90 minutes [from their homes]," Narain says.

Narain describes interstate highways like I-75 and I-275 as the "spine" of Tampa Bay Area transportation, where major funding efforts are traditionally focused to facilitate vehicular access across county lines. However, he says, intra-county roadways are the often overlooked "spider legs" that deliver workers to and from their jobs inside the City of Tampa and Hillsborough County.

"The reason you don't hear it being discussed on the state level is because public transportation is not profitable in the traditional sense. But we have to shift the way we think about public transportation. It's a service provided by the government and subsidized by taxpayers. ... It was not designed to turn profit. It's a service that helps facilitate people getting to work. You have to shift your mindset to realize that, and only then will you see legislators at the state level taking it seriously," Narain says.

Neighborhood Association president remains hopeful for future of transportation in East Tampa, but questions linger

Tate and I concluded our walk in October with a return to our starting point at the Jackson Heights NFL YET Center, where some of the same kids we saw entering the rec center earlier are now hopping into waiting cars, while others walk or push their bicycles toward 34th Street and, presumably home -- or perhaps to the HART stop at the Lake Avenue roundabout.

I decide to wait until the Infrastructure and Jobs Act becomes law in November before I follow up to seek one last insight from the Jackson Heights Neighborhood Association President. 

I dial Tate's number at 5 p.m. during a Monday rush hour. In the month since our walk, we've set our clocks back one hour to Standard Time, so the sun is already setting -- as it will until Daylight Savings Time returns next spring -- on the kids walking to and from after-school programs at their neighborhood recreation center, and home.

Now that I've viewed the current state of transportation in Jackson Heights, and, as federal funding for infrastructure improvements makes its way to Tampa Bay, I want to know what Fran Tate hopes the future holds for her neighborhood. Now, Tate offers direct answers. She leaves us with her own questions, too. 

Without skipping a beat, Tate says, "I most want to see more buses on our routes, and more covered shelters like those you see in the more well-to-do areas."

"We're all humans. We all have bodies that need access to public transportation. We all have legs we use to get around, and wheelchairs, and bicycles, too -- just like people in all the areas across Tampa. We pay taxes, just like the people living in the rest of Tampa and Hillsborough County. So why is the East Tampa area being deprived of comfortable shelter for our bodies? Why aren't there more buses to get us places? What's the explanation for that?"

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority didn't respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story.

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Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.