For Janey McGrew, the breaking point came when it cost $50 to fill up her gas tank for the week. "This is ridiculous," she thought, and decided right then to start taking the bus to work.
It takes an hour for her to ride two buses from southern St. Petersburg to her job as a nurse manager at Bay Pines VA Medical Center, compared with only a half-hour in her car. But the 51-year-old is adapting nicely, passing the down time reading and listening to her iPod instead of fighting traffic.
In this summer of $4-a-gallon gas, McGrew is part of a surge of thousands of new passengers climbing aboard Tampa Bay's public buses, where they're learning firsthand just how convenient — or inconvenient — taking the bus can be.
It's a tradeoff of time vs. money, they're finding. The bus tends to be slower but cheaper, especially for longer commutes. It's a big leap for these new riders to give up the independence of their cars, but some are saving hundreds of dollars. McGrew figures her $45 monthly bus pass is a better deal than four $50 tanks of gas.
"You know what, the handwriting is on the wall. There's going to be more people like me on the bus, just wait," McGrew said. Then she added: "It would be helpful if you didn't have to wait so long in between buses."
And there's the rub.
Even as mass transit officials on both sides of Tampa Bay are seeing record demand for local bus service, they can't afford to put more buses on the road. In fact, they've been trimming service a bit. They're facing their own money crunch, squeezed by the rising cost of diesel fuel and a voter-mandated cut in property tax revenue that is the bulk of their funding.
"People are voting with their feet. As driving becomes more expensive for the consumer, transit becomes more attractive," said Tim Garling, director of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. "We have to provide a service that meets their needs — more frequent buses and shorter travel times. But that takes funding."
Ridership on Pinellas County buses is up 9 percent this year, and it's up 7 percent on Hillsborough Area Regional Transit. For example, Pinellas buses carried about 1-million passengers in May 2007, and this May they carried another 90,000 on top of that.
The smaller bus systems in Pasco and Hernando counties have also seen gains.
Waiting for the bus
In a car-dominated culture, the prospect of taking the bus to work for the first time can be intimidating. It involves waiting at a bus stop or shelter, sometimes in heat or rain. You're expected to have exact change. You're giving up control. And at first glance, the Pinellas and Hillsborough bus maps are a daunting maze where 400 buses follow 90 routes.
But transit rookies may not realize that bus operators are willing to bend over backward to make them more comfortable.
Both the PSTA and HART say they're getting many more phone calls from newcomers seeking advice on how to navigate the system. They'll also send someone out to walk customers through the process, actually taking them on their first bus ride. In Pinellas it's called the "Show Me" service. In Hillsborough it's a "travel trainer."
That's mostly for seniors and teenagers, though. Most inquiries can be handled over the phone, said Shirley Howard, the PSTA's customer service manager. Most people just want to know where to get on and off the bus and how to pay the fare.
"Our goal is to get them on their first ride," Howard said. "The second ride is easier."
Some callers also want assurances that they won't be harassed by homeless people on the bus.
"It's not the downtrodden who are riding the bus. It's everyday people," Howard answers. "I tell people that it's public transportation, so you're going to see your neighbors — the same people you see at the grocery store."
Around Tampa Bay, public buses typically have been viewed as the last resort of low-income, blue-collar workers and elderly people who can no longer drive. In the last decade they've begun to capture a wider audience.
For instance, HART added commuter express buses that shoot between far-flung suburbs and downtown Tampa or MacDill Air Force Base. Riders sit in air conditioning and type on their laptops. It's one of HART's fastest-growing services.
Public bus systems grew as local governments became flush with rising property tax revenue. But transit officials say such costs as diesel fuel and drivers' health insurance have eaten much of their budgets, and that the local bus system is still lacking compared with other major metropolitan areas.
Now that property tax income is dropping, they're exploring new ways to pay for transit, including a possible switch to a more lucrative sales tax. That requires voters' permission.
"We need to look at this as a bump in the road, something to navigate around, as opposed to a death spiral where we're cutting service forever," said Garling, the PSTA director. "We need to keep our eye on the ball, which is the future. A robust transit system makes life cheaper for people."
The most common complaint about local buses is that they should be more frequent. Some buses come by once an hour.
So, even as budget cutters are eliminating little-used trips all over the map, they're adding buses to core routes.
In St. Petersburg, librarian Marja Paulsen knows the No. 4 bus will come by every 15 minutes in the morning to take her down Fourth Street to the Mirror Lake Library downtown.
The PSTA has added 20-minute service on three busy routes serving downtown St. Petersburg and Clearwater. HART has put 15-minute service on Nebraska Avenue and will expand it to Kennedy Boulevard in November.
That's good for passengers like Tampa office clerk Rob Harper, who said, "I hear gas might hit five bucks a gallon. Maybe someday we'll all be on the bus."
Times staff writer Kris Hundley contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3435.