Debra Brightbill takes the bus to work. To run her errands. To visit her friends. It doesn't mean she's happy about it.
"I'd rather be in a car," said the 29-year-old St. Petersburg woman, whose 12-minute car ride to work now takes about 45 minutes.
But it comes with a big perk.
"It's much cheaper than gas," she said.
With gasoline prices continuing to climb, more Tampa Bay residents than ever are opting for the bus, making some already standing-room-only routes even busier.
Pinellas County had 1.259 million riders in March, surpassing all previous monthly ridership records, according to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. That's about 90,000 riders more than the previous record, set in March 2011.
Hillsborough's 1.279 million riders also set a record, according to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. It topped the previous monthly record, also set in March 2011, by more than 60,000 trips.
"A lot of people are seeing the value of transit," said HART spokeswoman Marcia Mejia.
Transportation officials credit rising gas prices and a busy tourism and spring break season.
Gas prices across Florida were averaging $3.94 per gallon of regular on Monday, a record high for the month. Tourism officials have said this year's spring break season may be one of the best ever.
But transit officials also say a gradual economic recovery might have more people taking the bus. Recent surveys show about half of the riders said they were using the bus system to get to work, PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher said.
Several riders surrounding Brightbill on a crowded No. 52 bus from downtown Clearwater to downtown St. Petersburg said Monday that they stopped driving or at least reduced driving and replaced it with low-cost bus rides.
"I've been saving a whole lot," said Zakia Walters, 31, of St. Petersburg, who owns a minivan but chooses to take the bus to work.
With a discount, she said, her monthly pass runs about $11.
She started taking the bus about a year ago, but still drives on the weekends.
"It was cheaper to do it this way," she said.
She has lots of company.
March's numbers in Pinellas mark the fourth consecutive month of record-setting ridership.
As long as gas prices remain high and tourism stays strong, "we'll probably set new records," Lasher said.
What's more impressive, he said, is that the record ridership comes after a 10 percent decrease in bus services since 2009.
"It's easy to set four months — or more — of records when you expand and add," Lasher said. "It just shows there is a willingness to ride."
He called the increase unprecedented.
Transportation officials on both sides of the bay said they are looking at potential problems that come with high ridership.
In Pinellas, authorities are monitoring some routes they know are reaching maximum capacity. Lasher said he has heard no reports of riders being left behind.
If it got to that point, he said, PSTA would have to evaluate the routes and make adjustments. "We may have to adjust things a little bit as far as frequency goes," he said.
Hillsborough transit is dealing with the same potential problem on some of its routes.
"We're putting out as much service as we can within the constraints" of our funding, Mejia said.
Danny Valentine can be reached at (727) 893-8804 or [email protected]