TAMPA — Tashika Washington slid on a pair of plastic gloves and traversed East Tampa, pausing at each bus stop on Route No. 12 and wondering what would greet her next. Perhaps another couch or mattress. A broken microwave. Human excrement or a puddle of unidentifiable goo.
But as she parked her white pickup truck at the ninth stop she’d cleaned that morning, she exhaled. Everything was in order, except for a few pieces of trash strewn on the sidewalk beside an almost-empty trash can.
“Every day. This happens every day,” she said, collecting the refuse piece by piece before heading to the next stop in need of tidying.
Washington, 38, is part of a team of about a dozen tasked with maintaining the 2,257 bus stops scattered across Hillsborough County. Each day they fan out across one of the fastest growing counties in America, doing what they can to help an oft-disparaged bus network run as smoothly as possible.
On this balmy April morning, she scoured a stop next to a shuttered day care center, boarded and graffitied. She drove past a community garden boasting kale and pumpkin and arrived at another stop where a teenager sat with his younger brother, en route to grandma’s house. They had just missed their bus and had to wait 40 minutes for the next.
She tidied another and another, before reaching a stop in Ybor City, where a man was sleeping on the bench, beside him some bundled belongings.
The job goes far beyond wiping away vandalism and installing new signs. Sometimes Washington offers a supportive smile or listening ear to those waiting, knowing she might be the only person to check in on them that day. Often she shoulders complaints about the infrequency of service and abounding delays.
“They just want someone to vent to,” she said. “Someone to make them feel heard.”
Washington has paid little note to recent reports of the cash-strapped agency’s tumult. “For my sanity,” she said.
The board of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority last month appointed its sixth CEO in just as many years after a monthslong investigation found the previous CEO had steered the agency into significant turnover, poor morale and potentially violated state law.
Meanwhile, Washington toils, sweeps, wipes, mends and smiles five days a week, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“This is how we feed our families,” she said. “We cannot focus on the negative.”
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Her mother lived across the street from the transit agency’s heavy maintenance facility, located in the eastern reaches of Tampa.
At age 20, Washington needed a job that didn’t require her to have a car. She submitted her application only to learn she was too young. A week later, on her 21st birthday, she returned to the agency, asking: “I’m old enough now, can I please have the job?”
She was hired part-time as a vehicle custodian, responsible for scouring buses overnight so they were ready for passengers by dawn. The position allowed her to be with her children during the day. As they grew older she took a full-time position.
She’s been doing route maintenance for about six years, the team’s only woman and one of three staff assigned to the southeast quadrant of the county, a sprawling area stretching from East Tampa to Plant City to Ruskin and Wimauma, encompassing 657 stops and some of the fasted growing zip codes in the region.
On this April morning, she traced Route No. 12 through corners of the city she frequented as a child.
“Working for HART has helped me provide for my family,” she said, adding that the steady paycheck allowed her to buy a home after growing up between rentals.
Now she lives in car-dependent Ruskin, a 35-minute drive away, with her husband, who spends his days repairing roads for the City of Tampa.
Skyrocketing housing costs are pushing more residents to far-flung suburbs, leaving transportation as an increasingly important link in the area’s growth. But after a childhood spent riding the bus, Washington now seldom does because the existing routes do not take her where she needs to go.
“You know how much gas is?” she said on the way to her 13th stop of the day. “I would love to be able to ride the bus.”
At a February meeting, director of facilities Dale Smith explained that the maintenance team last year doubled in size, allowing the agency to expand weekend cleaning shifts. HART is also launching an “Adopt-a-Shelter” program, partnering with local businesses to improve cleanliness.
The agency also works with a contractor to clean the shelters on Nebraska Avenue, the most demanding.
“We can be tidying a bus stop at 7 a.m. but three hours later, it’s like we never came,” Jeff Campbell, the route maintenance supervisor told the Times.
Last year, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa secured $5 million in federal earmark funding for bus stop improvements across the county. Fewer than a third of stops currently have some kind of shade or rain shelter for those waiting. And waiting is what many passengers do, craning their necks looking down the road for signs of a bus.
“Our bus stops have been screaming out for attention,” Castor told the Times last month. “The community deserves so much better.”
Washington exhaled in relief when she learned about the federal funding on its way. Then she slipped on a fresh pair of gloves and wondered what would be waiting for her at the next bus stop.