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Advocate for THE Bus shows where the service can still improve

David Philipsen, center, is a regular at Hernando County Commission meetings, where he pushes for improvements to the county’s THE Bus mass transit system. Earlier this year, commissioners, including Nick Nicholson, left, and Diane Rowden, proclaimed June National Disability Awareness Month and presented a resolution to Philipsen, who has cerebral palsey, recognizing him as person who promotes increased public awareness about disabilities.

Courtesy of Brenda Frazier

David Philipsen, center, is a regular at Hernando County Commission meetings, where he pushes for improvements to the county’s THE Bus mass transit system. Earlier this year, commissioners, including Nick Nicholson, left, and Diane Rowden, proclaimed June National Disability Awareness Month and presented a resolution to Philipsen, who has cerebral palsey, recognizing him as person who promotes increased public awareness about disabilities.

The stops we passed were nothing more than metal signs bearing the logo of THE Bus and jutting from grassy, weedy roadsides.

Almost none of them offered a place to sit, or route maps, or shelter from the rain or sun.

To me, an able-bodied rider on the county's mass transportation system, they looked merely uninviting.

To David Philipsen, whom I joined last week on one of his regular bus rides, they can be imposing and even hazardous.

Philipsen, 25, who has cerebral palsy, once fell after stepping off the bus and onto the rough ground at one of these stops. People using wheelchairs and walkers struggle just to get to them.

"We need concrete rather than those grassy knolls, which in wet weather get soggy. It's just very difficult," said Lucille Marano, 66, of Spring Hill, who suffers from severe spinal problems and needs a walker to get around.

Philipsen, who describes himself as an activist — and modestly describes this role as "like a politician, but lower on the food chain" — hit on this issue during last year's election, when he heard some County Commission candidates calling for an end to bus service.

"My whole thing is, give us a working transit system, which we do have," he said. "So give us a more pleasing system."

Yes, he pounds home his message about the deficiencies of the THE Bus. But he's always very clear how much he appreciates it.

"It opened up a whole new world for me," said Philipsen, a graduate of River Ridge High School who moved from Pasco County to Hernando about four years ago.

Nearly every day, Philipsen's grandmother drives him from their home in the Heather, north of Weeki Wachee, to a nearby stop.

Some days, when his goal is just to get out of the house, he rides to a library or movie theater.

Other days, he attends meetings of community groups such as the Hernando chapter of the NAACP, where he has pitched the idea of upgrading bus stops. And almost every Tuesday, he rides into Brooksville so he can speak his piece to the commission.

Though plenty of residents are hostile to his message, there are also signs it's starting to sink in.

The county is paying a consultant $34,000 to identify upgrades needed to bring the bus stops into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. At the same time, county staffers will try to make the stops more welcoming to all riders.

That is just part of running a bus service, said Mike Carroll, Pasco County's public transportation manager, whose system is in the process of building 57 new shelters.

Pasco buses already carry about 4,000 riders per day, more than 10 times as many as THE Bus.

Carroll expects the new shelters to boost these numbers even more.

"It raises the profile of the system. It gives the perception of safety, security and protection from the elements," Carroll said. "It has a significant role in attracting new riders."

THE Bus is heading in that direction — more shelters, more benches and, hopefully, more riders, said Dennis Dix, Hernando's transportation planning coordinator, though the improvements will be phased in gradually over the next several years as federal funds become available.

And why is Hernando is moving in that direction? Dix said it's mostly just because the county has to check periodically to make sure its bus system is in compliance with ADA.

But THE Bus has a lot of opposition, which is probably understandable given its costs and low ridership.

So it needs a political counterweight — someone to remind commissioners how much the service means to people who depend upon it, how difficult it sometimes is to access.

It needs someone like Philipson to tell them the answer is not abandoning mass transit, but making it better.

Advocate for THE Bus shows where the service can still improve 10/01/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 5:33pm]
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