BRANDON — Terry O'Connor says the choice is simple: Sit in traffic and pay $50 in weekly fuel costs or let someone else do the driving.
O'Connor chooses the latter. He catches the 25LX bus to his job at MacDill Air Force Base.
Dozens of other Hillsborough Area Regional Transit commuters do the same, and by the time the 5:55 a.m. bus reaches O'Connor's stop at Town Center Boulevard and Providence Road in Brandon, it's standing room only. O'Connor doesn't mind, though.
What does bug him and other HART riders, he says, is the scramble to find parking now that the lot where they used to leave their cars is off-limits.
For years, the riders parked behind Barnacles restaurant at 926 Town Center Blvd. and then walked half a block to catch the bus at Town Center and Providence.
But what began as a trickle of cars a few years ago swelled to four or five rows of parked vehicles. Barnacles ended the practice to make room for paying customers.
A few weeks ago, the restaurant posted fliers on windshields warning that starting Feb. 6, commuters' cars would be towed if they were left in the Barnacles lot.
"I can't fault Barnacles," said O'Connor, 55, who has been using the lot for a year. "They've got a business to run. Their job isn't to allow me to park there so I can go to work."
The decision left the riders hunting for alternatives and highlighted a dilemma HART has grappled with since the commuter routes started spiking a few years ago, thanks in part to rising gas prices. With ridership growing in the suburbs, the search for available parking has gotten tougher.
The trend continued last year and looks to be happening again this year. Express-bus ridership rose 10.2 percent for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to HART.
The 25LX saw a 14.5 percent jump for the year, while ridership the first four months of this year was 25 percent higher.
"There has been steady upward growth," spokeswoman Marcia Mejia said. "When you have express routes, you have to look for areas to park."
Some regulars say they're frustrated they haven't seen more resources put toward the express routes, such as benches and covered waiting areas.
While HART has some commuter-only parking lots, most stops lack such parking and have little more than a bus sign planted at an intersection.
"Literally hundreds of new shelters have been placed throughout the system, yet the 25LX lacks shelters and lighting at any of its stops," said Norbert Gobin, 61, of Bloomingdale, who publishes a newsletter for HART commuters. "There's nothing here, yet these routes keep growing."
HART says it's seeking a solution. The agency plans to create two regional park-and-ride stations with 200 to 250 parking spaces each, including one station on Falkenburg Road in Brandon.
Several commuter lines would stop there, and the lots would include benches, covered waiting areas and possibly a snack bar. HART said it's negotiating to purchase 4 acres on Falkenburg. The project would take about a year to complete.
In the meantime, Mejia suggested the riders use one of the commuter stops with dedicated parking. Each of HART's six commuter lines in the SouthShore and Brandon area includes at least one lot dedicated to commuter parking.
The 25LX offers parking at the J.C. Handley Sports Complex on Kings Avenue, but O'Connor said the lot is 4 miles from his Brandon house in the opposite direction. It just isn't practical given the rush-hour traffic, which is why he parked at Barnacles.
Other riders are in a similar bind, he said. With the Barnacles lot no longer an option, they're rethinking whether to keep taking the bus. Some are parking near a vacant Borders bookstore. Others are asking business owners for permission to park, while some riders are simply taking their chances and parking where they can.
"It's now everybody fending for themselves and crossing their fingers they don't get their vehicles towed," O'Connor said. "I guess we'll see what happens."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected]