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Funny as it seems, most of us are willing to pay a premium to be lonely.

That's not how we see it, of course. But 80 percent of commuters in the Tampa Bay area drive to work by themselves, which is not only the least efficient form of transport, but also the most expensive and isolating.

Let's talk money first, because most experts see the current dip in gas prices, like a summer romance, as a pleasant interlude that won't last. And workers in Hernando have the longest average drive to work in the Tampa Bay area: 30 minutes.

Among these long-distance commuters are Cheryl Tyler and David Folds, who live in Brooksville and work at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, an 80-mile round trip.

If each drove a vehicle getting 20 miles to the gallon, the commute would cost them at least $250 per month in gasoline, they say, as well as higher insurance premiums and maintenance expenses.

As federal employees, they receive a monthly stipend of $115 for either taking mass transit or joining a carpool. Along with six other VA employees, they use this money to pay $1,100 for the monthly lease and upkeep of a Ford Econoline van provided through the state-funded Bay Area Commuter Services.

Which brings their monthly commuting cost, including gas, to the envy-inducing sum of less than $50.

"It's a godsend,'' Folds, 63. "It's like getting a raise.''

If you're not one of these lucky subsidized federal workers, tell your boss that any employer can get a tax break for contributing to the cost of a vanpool or other alternative form of transportation. If that doesn't work, contact commuter services at 1-800-998-RIDE or go to The organization will try to hook you up with a carpool and, if your ride ever leaves you stranded at work, provide free taxi service.

We could list all the benefits of vanpooling and carpooling, from easing traffic congestion to cutting greenhouse emissions. Most of the same ones as mass transit, in other words, but without the huge capital outlay.

But you've probably heard all that before. So how about something you haven't heard: Under the right circumstances, with the right people, carpooling or vanpooling can actually make commuting enjoyable.

In the morning, about half the VA crew bring blankets "and get in their little nests in the back and go to sleep,'' said Tyler, 53.

Rides home are livelier. They may talk about work, health problems or marriages.

"We try to help each other out,'' Tyler said.

One rider taught Folds how to text his daughter in California. Another told Tyler she needed to clean out her dryer's exhaust, she said, and if she'd waited any longer, her house probably would have burned down.

They talk politics, Folds said, and on a recent ride, "one of our passengers brought a sample ballot and we went through all the constitutional amendments and discussed them.''

The crew held a yard sale to raise money for victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami and, more recently, chipped in to pay the airfare of an aging veteran who wanted to see the World War II memorial in Washington.

"It's almost like a little family on the road,'' Tyler said.

Doesn't that sound better than a book on tape?