New HART vans help those with disabilities better utilize public transportation

Bus rider Johnny Foster of South Tampa says HART's specialized vans have become an invaluable way for him to get to the store or medical appointments.
Foster, 80, has severe knee and back health issues. He used to use regular buses operated by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) but due to physical limitations, is no longer able to ride them.
Fortunately for Foster and other bus riders with physical or cognitive disabilities, HART has recently made a big investment in helping folks like Foster get from place to place more practically.

In Dec. 2019, HART’s Board of Directors approved buying up to 44 HARTFlex and HARTPlus paratransit vans, investing $4.425 million in improving and upgrading the way those with disabilities can make use of HART services. There are now about 3,600 certified clients using the services Flex and Para van services.

“I’m sure that will make getting around easier and I’ll be using them regularly,” says the retired truck driver.

As of October, 10,111 HARTPlus fleet trips were completed on one of these vans, which shows the investment is paying off, says Carson Chambers, HART Director of Communications. She says that although total trips were down 28.6 percent this year from 2019 due to the coronavirus, the drop-off for special needs customers has been much less, showing the need for both Flex and Paratransit services and reinforcing the decision to purchase the new vehicles.
HART Paratransit service is for people with physical, cognitive, emotional, visual, or other disabilities that prevent them from using HART fixed-route bus system. They are fully accessible for users of wheelchairs or motorized scooters

Ruthie Reyes Burckard, interim HART CEO, says of the new HART 43 Chevrolet Cutaway vehicles, 35 will be Paratransit and the other eight are Flex. She says Cutaways are in use to replace Venture Production Group’s MV-1 vans, in production until 2016. In total, HART already has more than 60 MV-1 and Cutaway vehicles.

“The new vans are a replacing of those that have met their useful life. But we’ll still have approximately 15 or 18 that are overdue (to replace) by the end of next year,” says Burckhard, who has been with HART for 19 years and is also the deputy chief of transportation.
Burckard says two Para vans have been received and are going through a preparatory process to get on the road, namely having the radio system functioning.
Once road-ready, Burckard says, they will help accommodate about 3,500 riders who generally use HART Flex. Flex and Paratransit vans look identical but seating capacity is different. HART Plus can seat eight and hold two wheelchairs. Flex has additional seating for up to 12, with two folding seats for two wheelchairs.

“We add additional seating capacity because the ridership is different on Hart Flex,” says Burkhard, who started her career as a paratransit driver with the New York City Transit Authority in the 1990s.
HART’s new Flex and Para vans are mostly powered by gasoline. There are older vans that run on CNG.
“The CNG vehicles have not been the most efficient use for us on this type of vehicle so we’ve transitioned back to gasoline due to mileage issues,” she says, adding sometimes vans go more than 150 miles a day and CNG vans don’t have that capacity.
The cost for Flex and Paratransit vans averages $81,000 each, coming in pre-wired for the technology to add.
“It’s new technology really for these vans. Those CNG vans are really a conversion from a regular engine, so they don’t have the best features if made specifically to be a CNG engine,” she says.
As for coverage with the new Flex and Para vans, door service, and geographic zones are on the HART website. Burckard says the ride geographic zones – Brandon, South County, Northdale, Town n Country, and South Tampa -- are the same with some minor adjustments to the paratransit service areas in January.

“All of the paratransit customers, or at least most of their areas, are still covered with rare exceptions because they have other routes that service that area. For HART flex customers there’s a very small impact in terms of the service area,” she says.

For those waiting for rides, Burckard adds on-time performance for October was almost 87 percent for pick up. 
“It really is a really crucial service for our special needs customers, for people w varying levels of disabilities… using our system allows them to get to essential places.”
Cost for Flex and Para rides are $4 per trip para transit each way, anywhere in Hillsborough County, within up to three-quarters of a mile for any regular bus routes.
“You can go from Wimauma to Town ‘n Country for $4. This mirrors the fixed route system in the service area, in the hours, and, obviously, use of it varies – work, school, medical or just to get to the YMCA,” Burckard adds.
Lastly, Burckard says, those from out of town can pre-register for visitor statuses for 21 days without full registration to use Flex and Para services. They just need a doctor’s note or eligibility from another transit agency and use is good for up to 21 days that don’t need to be consecutive.

“Our service has been pretty consistent even throughout this season of COVID, if you will,” she says. “Overall, I think (the new vans) it’s just improving on the customer experience. I think what we get out of new vehicles is the reliability of service.”

In August, HART was awarded a $2.7 million Bus and Bus Facilities a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant to buy up to four electric buses and support infrastructure.
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Read more articles by Paul Catala.

Paul Catala is a freelance writer whose work has been published across Florida, the U.S., and internationally. He has more than 30 years of experience working at the Charlotte Sun-Herald, the Tampa Tribune, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Provo (Utah) Daily-Herald, The (Lakeland) Ledger, and the Associated Press. He has a degree in broadcast telecommunication from the University of Florida and did post-graduate study in journalism at the University of South Carolina. Now living in Lakeland, Paul is an accomplished musician, playing keyboard and piano both solo and with bands around the Tampa Bay Area.