On the Horizon

Bus service still lacking in South County

By PENNY FLETCHER

Penny Fletcher

Penny Fletcher

Having grown up in Asbury Park, N.J., where you really didn’t need a car to get from place to place but bought them as teenagers simply for the luxury of being able to cruise the boardwalk area we locals called “The Circuit” (near the famed Stone Pony of Bruce Springsteen fame) or the privacy of being with a date at a drive-in movie, I really didn’t understand the concept of not being able to go where you wanted any time you wanted.

Couldn’t anybody just hop on a bus and go to school or work? I mean, if you missed a bus, didn’t another one come every 10 or 15 minutes?

It was even better in New York City, which I visited often because I had an uncle who worked at NBC and cousins scattered all over the city. Of course, then, we parked our VW bug two-wheels over the brick curbing in Greenwich Village — top down, never worried about theft — and took buses from place to place around the city until it was time to drive over the bridge or take the tunnel home. Buses took so much less time than driving in the city.

Buses were considered the best transportation in many places I lived. You didn’t have a car payment; you didn’t have to buy tags and insurance; and you weren’t late to every meeting because of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

After that, I lived in rural Tennessee, where I found the need for a car because we were 10 miles from the nearest small town, 20 from the nearest city. You didn’t leave the house for small things then, like having forgotten to buy milk or bread on your way home from work.

Then, in 1979, I moved to South County from Bradenton, where I had lived for four years after coming to Florida. South County was mostly rural then, orange groves, cattle, tomatoes and squash. I didn’t think about bus travel then, because we had a car and the roads weren’t crowded. In fact, it was pleasant to drive around Ruskin, Apollo Beach, Riverview, Sun City Center and beyond.

Now I live near the Big Bend corner, and it is not pleasant to drive. Cars are bumper-to-bumper most of the day; rush hour is intolerable; and it gets worse all the time. In fact, it’s predicted that 330,000 people will move into Hillsborough County in the next 20 years.

If you live in Tampa, you can take a bus every 10 or 15 minutes. You may have to change buses a couple of times, but there isn’t anywhere in town you can’t count on getting to by bus.

Despite the changes made by HARTline bus service in December, adding many routes and closer arrival and departure times,  South County isn’t much better off than it was before the changes. We have so much traffic, several intersections that the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office says have more accidents than Tampa’s intersections, and still, no sign of public transportation.

Oh, Sun City Center residents can go to Westfield Mall in Brandon by special arrangement called the 53LX, but it doesn’t have regular stops along U.S. 301 in Wimauma and Riverview along the way. HARTline spokespersons say that’s because there aren’t any places safe enough for bus stops.

How can those of us in South County be encouraged to use public transportation when we can’t use it to get to work, school or events?

For example, one of my family members who lives in Apollo Beach had a ride to Tampa this morning but no ride home. I told her to take a bus.

Bad advice. Her experience will explain South County’s public transportation situation well:

Leaving Tampa near the county courthouse, she took a bus from the corner of Nebraska and Twiggs that left every 10 minutes. That’s good service, but what happened next? That bus went first to the Marion Transit Center — the opposite direction to where she was traveling. From there, a bus leaves every 30 minutes for Westfield Mall in Brandon. So she went to inner-city Tampa, and then Brandon, before finding a bus that went to Apollo Beach. There, she was given the choice of taking Route 31 at 12:30 or 1:15 that goes down U.S. 41 or the 53LX that leaves at noon or 2 p.m. for Sun City Center.

Where to after that? Well, if she lived anywhere in the roughly square area that is so congested by cars — bordered on the north by Bloomingdale Avenue; on the south by S.R. 674 in Sun City Center and Ruskin; on the west by U.S. 41; and on the east by U.S. 301 — there are no buses.

That whole area is completely devoid of service, except for the specially arranged Sun City Center/Westfield Mall run.

Yet, the other day driving to Tampa on I-4, I noticed it is now closely lined with beautiful large Queen palms. I’ve since been told the palms cost at least $500 each. I realize the county and state want our interstates into the city to look good to attract tourist money, but what about spending some money on bus service for the residents who live and work in South County?

It’s nice to be encouraged to use public transportation but not if it takes four hours of busing and a 10-mile walk to get from Tampa to your house.

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