Paula Lange could use some company.
Lange, 57, of Zephyrhills works for Pasco County Public Transportation. She drives the morning run on the newly minted U.S. 41 bus service in Land O'Lakes and Lutz.
She might as well be the Maytag repairman.
On May 26, the fifth day of service for the route and the final weekday during which people could ride without paying, the day's first passenger boarded at 8:30 a.m. That was 21/2 hours after the day's run began.
The passenger happened to be yours truly. The empty bus came as a surprise. People love free stuff. This was a BOGO without having to BO.
Granted, this is a new service, and ridership inevitably will climb. But the initial solitude is a reminder that, despite urban planners' love affair with mass transit, you still need marketing and desirable connections to appeal to an autocentric society.
For the time being, don't consider it a bus. Consider it akin to a private limo. Bus No. 1602 offers 26 seats and Wi-Fi access. It still has that new-car smell. The seats are upholstered in blue fabric with red, orange, yellow and green patterns. Most importantly, you get an attentive driver.
"Are you cool enough?'' Lange asked as she turned on the air conditioning.
I boarded at the Walmart Supercenter near the Land O'Lakes Boulevard/N Dale Mabry Highway apex and traveled north. You get a view of the new — the construction sites for a self-storage business and an adult living facility — and the old — the now-shuttered Royal Lanes bowling alley that closed the day before the bus service began.
By riding, and not driving, a commuter can avoid the stream of rock trucks and the convoy of school buses that typically fill the highway. You also don't need to be tuned to the radio for rush-hour traffic reports, which lets you skip the drive-time annoyance of car dealer Billy Fuccillo. And now that school is out for the summer, the yellow buses will be gone, but not the commercial vehicles. Nor the drivers who believe their time is more valuable than yours.
At Ehren Cutoff, a black crossover SUV went right on red without pausing at the traffic signal and pulled directly into the path of the oncoming bus. The driver sped away, cutting off another car in the middle lane before disappearing from sight.
It could be part of the PCPT marketing campaign. Ride the bus. Avoid the jerks.
Early on in this trip, the driver turned tour guide.
"I'll point out some of the stops for you," Lange volunteered. "There's one."
Indeed. On the east side of the road is a white sign with the bus symbol and route number, 41, highlighted in green. There are no shelters, bus benches or even waiting passengers just yet.
You can spot signs near the Lake Padgett Mobile Home Village entrance and near the intersections of Bell Lake and Hale Roads, Ehren Cutoff, Pleasant Plains Parkway, Gator Lane and elsewhere.
We finished the northbound run in 26 minutes, giving us four minutes to pause at the Pasco County Utilities Building on Central Boulevard. Lange said she is new to PCPT, but not new to driving for a living. She used to command a semitrailer around the nation's highways. Toting a solitary journalist around Land O'Lakes must seem mundane by comparison.
As we departed for the southbound run, she offered up a driving tip.
"You have to be real patient right here," she said as we waited to turn south onto U.S. 41 from Central Boulevard.
No doubt. Two lanes of turmoil.
Just last week, county officials said they had requested, without success, a traffic signal at the intersection from the state Department of Transportation.
The ride was efficient and uneventful. In other words, it worked as planned. Too bad nobody was on board to notice. Ridership for the week totaled about 30 people.
"You try to reach out to everybody you can. Sometimes you reach a lot of people, sometimes you don't,'' said Kurt Scheible, director of PCPT. "You expect to start off pretty low. As word gets around, and people see the bus on the street, I would expect ridership to increase.''
The driver certainly did her part.
"Come back," Lange said, "and ride any time."
Hopefully, so will others.