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Cutting Pasco bus routes hurts those in need

Cherie Whitman is 39 and riding the bus is a way of life.

She has her own place in the neighborhood near 20th Street in Zephyrhills and takes the bus most every day. She travels to her mother's home or to the Florida Hospital Zephyrhills where she volunteers two days a week — Tuesdays in therapy and Fridays in the cafeteria.

If she were school age, she'd be categorized with an acronym that would identify her as learning disabled or another label indicating the mental challenges she faces. She does not drive. On most days, she occupies the seat nearest the front of the bus, across the aisle and slightly behind driver Earl Hobbs.

"Be careful crossing the road,'' Hobbs says when Whitman exits at Seaberg Avenue.

The paternal-like advice may disappear Oct. 1 along with Pasco County Public Transportation Route 33 in Zephyrhills. It's on the budget-chopping block. So is running buses on Saturdays and holidays and the 30-minute service along U.S. 19, which would be pushed back to every 45 minutes.

That's what happens when you're trying to cut nearly a million bucks or 12.6 percent of the public transportation budget including reducing the staff from 86 employees to 66.

The Pasco County Commission scheduled public hearings on the proposed changes for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Pasco County Historic Courthouse, Dade City and again at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 25 at the West Pasco Government Center on Little Road, New Port Richey.

The planned cuts are part of the tens of millions of budget reductions to be considered before the start of the fiscal year. Firefighters will have their union representatives advocating for them. Sheriff Bob White, the judges and constitutional officers will be fighting for their staffs and capital expenses. Even the 4-H kids are organized politically.

But who speaks for the people riding Route 33? The working class people, the needy and the seniors? To them, a reliable mass transit system means independence.

Michael Oliver, 50, is a hair stylist and walks a mile just to catch the bus at its western most stop along Route 33 — the access road abutting Wendy's Restaurant in the plaza at the corner of Eiland Boulevard and State Road 54. He already changed his life because of the feared fate of Route 33.

"I panicked,'' he says recounting his reaction to the proposed budget cut. So he moved from Dade City to west of Zephyrhills to be closer to his job — still a two-mile walk, but better than the alternative. There is no automobile in his life.

"With the economy the way it is, I'm lucky just to make my rent,'' he says. "It's terrible. Some days, I only do one haircut.''

He relies on the bus to take him into downtown Zephyrhills to run errands. Without it, "I'll either buy a bicycle or end up walking. I won't be able to get into town as much, that's for sure.''

At 9:50 on a weekday morning, Oliver and Whitman are the only passengers on Route 33 that makes an hourly loop from Eiland Boulevard to Zephyrhills Plaza, City Hall, 20th Street, County Road 54, Dean Dairy Road and back to Eiland. The route seems a natural for teenagers and retirees, passing by Zephyrhills High School, the Hercules Aquatic Center, the Zephyrhills Library and scores of mobile home parks. But not on this summer day.

The county's 10-year mass transit plan, adopted by commissioners less than a year ago, projected ridership on Route 33 at more than 22,000 trips this year with increases of 3,000 rides annually through 2018. It is the least utilized of the county's nine bus routes, which makes it an easy target.

Though left unsaid is how retrenching in mass transit runs counterproductive to the stated mission from the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority to help build more vibrant local bus systems to provide the east-west connections for future express buses, light rail and commuter trains.

The lack of connectivity isn't lost on Chris Payne 62. She climbs aboard the Route 33 bus just before 11 a.m. carrying full plastic grocery bags from Publix at Eiland Boulevard. She uses the bus three times a week, but laments the hourly schedule means she can't buy frozen foods because they'd melt in the Florida heat while she waits for the next bus.

She looks at the now-empty bus and wonders: Why does the county use such a big vehicle? Why is there only one connection to another route? Why is there no connection to Tampa or to west Pasco?

"We live in Florida and we can't even get to the (Gulf). We can't get to any malls,'' Payne says

She moved from New Hampshire to the Zephyrhills area sight unseen in 2001. Then the car went and so did her ability to travel to more than a few east Pasco locations.

If Route 33 is discontinued?

"I want to move out of here.''

Cutting Pasco bus routes hurts those in need 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 3:07pm]
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