Although she doesn't consider herself a frequent bus rider, Mary Carol Bartemes hopes her disabled son will be.
"He is 52, and he cannot drive,'' said Bartemes, 76. "If he could ride the bus, it would make him more independent of me.''
Bartemes attended a public information session at the East Lake Community Library on Thursday to learn more about the launch of the PSTA North County Connector. Starting Monday, the new service, with three routes, will offer residents in the northern pockets of the county a chance to better connect with the public bus system.
The North County Connector, with eight shuttle-style buses, will deliver customers to destinations and other bus routes served not only by PSTA, but Hillsborough and Pasco's public bus systems, too. The new service also will offer a pick-up/drop-off service within three-quarters of a mile off the main route to a house, medical appointments, or even a favorite restaurant, for those customers who call ahead.
Here are the three routes:
• The Countryside/Oldsmar/Tampa Connector, which moves from the Westfield Countryside Mall to the Shoppes at Boot Ranch in Palm Harbor and then heads over to Hillsborough County, making a final turn at the HART Northwest Transfer Center in Town N' Country.
• The East Lake Connector, which starts at Shoppes at Boot Ranch, heads up East Lake Road and goes to the Tarpon Mall at Huey and Tarpon avenues.
• The Dunedin/Palm Harbor Connector, which goes from Countryside Mall to the Wal-Mart at U.S. 19 and Alderman Road in Palm Harbor, to St. Petersburg College's Tarpon Springs campus.
PSTA officials learned last January that they would receive about $500,000 from the Florida Department of Transportation for the program.
In April, PSTA began meeting with the public to gather information on where the buses were most needed.
"Countryside Mall was the most requested spot. Along with that, the Tarpon Mall, grocery stores, movie theaters. There was definitely a lot of interest,'' said PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher. "I don't remember a single person coming out and saying, 'Don't do it.'
"Not one person. Everyone seems to want it.''
Ridership on PSTA buses is already at an all-time high. Last month, 1.17 million riders boarded buses countywide. "But we know that the county is still under-served compared to other places,'' he said.
The new, smaller buses, with room for 14 riders and two wheelchairs, will help with that issue.
"They work well in areas where streets tend to be narrow,'' Lasher said. "In this part of the county, there are many gated communities and neighborhoods with smaller roads, and you can only use smaller vehicles to negotiate turns.''
Eleanor Friedley has lived in East Lake for 10 years. She sat next to Bartemes during the information session.
"I want to start riding the bus because I just don't like driving anymore,'' said Friedley, 73.
Friedley said one of her favorite memories is of a day spent with a relative taking PSTA buses from Dunedin to Pass-A-Grille.
"We went all the way down the beach, started way up north and went all the way down, and we stopped to have lunch at John's Pass,'' she said. "All for a $2 in fare. I'm looking forward to doing more of that kind of riding with (the North County Connector).''
Piper Castillo is reachable at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163.