The sky is still black when Route 19 Southbound pulls into Bayonet Point Plaza in Pasco County. A few cars dot the vast parking lot, as early employees arrive at Publix.
Driver Larry Rockett opens the big doors, which make a loud ssssssssss.
This is the first stop on his predawn route.
"By 10:30, the bus probably will be loaded," Rockett says as the bus rolls. "It constantly keeps picking up all day long."
Within minutes, he stops along U.S. 19 to pick up sisters Irma and Gloria Sherwood. They joined the rapidly rising ranks of those using Pasco County Public Transportation, many of whom count on the buses to travel between North Pinellas and West Pasco.
Ridership nearly doubled from 2000 to 2001, from 136,140 in 2000 to 271,830 in 2001. And a new report shows ridership for 2002 could reach almost 350,000 if a pattern for the first five months of the year continues.
Rockett's Route 19, which runs from Bayonet Point to Tarpon Springs, gets credit for much of the increase.
The access to Pinellas, five-day service instead of two and extended hours have added throngs of working people to the system's existing customer base of seniors and shoppers. All can now use the Pasco bus system to link up with the Pinellas system, according to PCPT officials.
Gloria Sherwood, 75, wears a Publix shirt and holds a bottle of water. She moved from Palm Harbor to Jasmine Lakes two years ago. But, because of Route 19, she is able to keep her job in the deli at the Palm Harbor Publix.
Otherwise, "She would have had to quit or find other transportation," says Irma Sherwood about her sister. Both are from Cuba, but Gloria Sherwood hasn't worked in this country long enough to collect retirement.
"(Gloria) doesn't drive, so this is her only way of getting back and forth," says Irma, who is 70.
"They should get more buses, and on Saturday also," Gloria says. "I can't work on Saturdays because there are no buses."
PCPT plans to raise the cost of the monthly pass from $7.50 to $15 over the next few years and add new routes and night pickups. Customers say they don't mind monthly price hikes. And they consider the 50-cent one-way trip a steal.
"You can't beat it," says John Citarella.
The 49-year-old Port Richey man used to drive to work every day to his plumbing supplies job in Tarpon Springs. But then his wife was left without a car all day. Now the bus lets him keep the car at home.
"It drops me right in front of the place," he says. "It's great."
Officials said within three years they plan to run buses every 30 minutes instead of hourly. They also plan to offer Saturday service, but that's further off.
Tom Huber, 52, of New Port Richey sits with his blue-padded lunch box. He says he and his fiance are saving for a house instead of buying a second car to get to work. She drives to her job in St. Petersburg, but he takes the bus to Tarpon Springs.
"We can put that extra money into a home," he says.
He gets up to switch buses as the Route 19 Southbound pulls behind the Tarpon Mall. He'll take a Pinellas bus to Datex Inc., a distributor of barcode scanners in Oldsmar, where he found jobs paid better than in Pasco.
Of course, Pasco residents aren't the only ones benefitting from the enhanced service.
After a quick smoke, bus driver Rockett is back behind the wheel taking Pinellas residents north for a job or to school.
Cathy Montague, 46, of Tarpon Springs, takes the bus to Southgate Shopping Center, where she switches to another bus that takes her to Webster College in Holiday.
"If it weren't for this bus, I wouldn't be able to go back to school," she says.
But soon some of her computer science classes will fall at night.
"I wish they had buses at night time," she says. "I'll have to get someone to pick me up."
As workers and students increase the number of riders, the former backbone of the system has stayed the same. Seniors still ride the bus with roughly the same frequency as before, officials say.
John Goelz, 60, rides it often. The Clearwater man sat with some reading material during his daily trip to Hudson Regional Library.
The retired truck driver, used to the road, takes four buses and three hours one way from his home to the library.
"The computers up there are newer and have headphones," he says, explaining why he doesn't use a library closer to home. "The computers in Clearwater are small, and there are no headphones."
At the library he checks his e-mail and the news and chats on Web sites like MSNBC. He has a license but no car.
"Thing is, you see accidents out there," he says, nodding at the window. "And it reminds you how safe it is to take the bus."