It's nearly 7:30 a.m., time for the bus to leave the station. A handful of riders take their seats on the Route 30 bus at the Northwest Transfer Center. The bus goes to downtown Tampa with stops at Tampa International Airport and WestShore Plaza. • Riding the bus is more popular than ever. Routes are more frequent. The rush hour ride to downtown Tampa couldn't be any easier. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit is spending millions of dollars building new transfer centers and park-and-ride sites as part of a more than $40-million program to improve bus service. • But who's riding the bus?• Ray Chiaramonte, among others. He's the interim executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the county group that creates long-term transportation goals. He catches the Route 30 bus to his job downtown.
On a bus, Chiaramonte said, he gets extra time to read, work from his BlackBerry or just relax while someone else fights rush hour traffic.
"It's just a better experience, especially now with this new transfer center," he said. He took the bus for two years and then stopped briefly, but when gas went up he got back on the bus.
Across the county, officials report a 7.5 percent increase in bus ridership over last year. July was the second-busiest month ever for HART, with 1.03-million bus passengers.
The number of riders on Route 30 is up more than 4 percent from last year. That means two more people per trip on average.
"Even though gas prices have started to drop, ridership is still going up," HART spokesman Ed Crawford said.
With the increase in riders, HART is making facility improvements, which include the Northwest Transfer Center at Sheldon and Waters Avenue in northwest Hillsborough. The $4.6-million park-and-ride hub has more than 90 parking spaces, eight blue-roofed pavilions and a 1,020-square-foot main building with restrooms, pay phones and vending machines.
HART opened a similar transfer station in west Tampa in November.
Although the facilities are new, HART's information about its riders isn't: The agency hasn't done onboard-passenger surveys since 2001.
To remedy that, HART is spending $117,000 on another onboard survey.
For the 2001 survey, more than 10,000 riders were questioned. Among the findings: More women than men took public transportation, and 54 percent of riders were commuters.
That's why Desire Griffin, a senior at Jefferson High School, uses the bus. The 17-year-old has spent the past year taking the bus to an on-the-job training class at WestShore Plaza. The bus isn't suitable for doing homework, but she can sometimes squeeze in a nap.
At her bus stop, there's no shelter.
"I just sit there in the rain and get wet, pretty much," Desire said.
Melody Andersen puts her bus pass through the reader and takes a seat. She opens a thick leather book, as she does every day she rides.
When gas went up, it was too expensive to own a car. Now, she spends $25 on a monthly pass instead of $150 on gas and relaxes during the hourlong trip.
"I just read my Bible and pray," Andersen said.
Andersen isn't the only rider taking the bus to save money. The 2001 survey found that 11 percent of riders used the bus to save money on car or parking expenses.
Nearly three-fourths took the bus because they didn't have a car.
Frank Cintron, a home remodeler, puts his bicycle on the rack, pays the fare and takes a seat.
He wears headphones, and sometimes takes a nap during the 20-minute ride.
The bus, he said, is convenient and less stressful than taking on traffic. Also, it would cost him $15 to drive his van, compared to $3.25 for an all-day bus pass.
Just before 9 a.m. the bus pulls into the Transit Center on Marion Street in downtown Tampa. Chiaramonte and a few other riders get off.
The Route 30 driver pulls away to make another round trip. There is a schedule to keep.
Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 269-5314 or [email protected]