They cut the ribbon on a posh new bus a few weeks ago, signaling optimistic expansion of Pasco County’s two-year-old east-west route linking Zephyrhills and New Port Richey.
Assembled under a fan-cooled tent in the parking lot of the Medical Center at Trinity, officials spoke buoyantly about the future of mass transit in Pasco County, with the bus in the background lending physical evidence to their commitment.
And, what evidence it is. Sleek. Ocean blue, emblazoned with a green and yellow stripe undulating across the side — a wave below a bright ball of sun and a seagull taking wing.
Inside, more blue. Soothing. Welcoming. Comfy, upholstered padded seats that say, sit, rest, stay awhile. Overhead, adjustable air conditioning vents and reading lights, just like on intra-city buses and airliners. Upscale.
And, that’s not all. Over the next several months, they’ll add free Wi-Fi, introducing the option of online productivity or entertainment to your ride, while Pasco County Public Transportation drivers get you pretty close to where you need to go.
It’s all perfectly splendid. But, so far, it’s also all a dream. Not that the new buses, two of them, aren’t authentic. Or, that Pasco’s commitment to mass transit isn’t both enthusiastic and genuine. But, there’s a reason there’s no mention of “rapid” in the system’s official name, as we shall see.
Let’s be clear. If, just now, it serves as nothing more than a symbolic reminder that Pasco is a single, unified entity, and not some geographic hybrid stitched together by whimsical bureaucrats and maintained by stubborn tradition, then the connector serves a valuable purpose.
Still, the additional buses, acquired through a $1.031 million grant from the Florida Department of Transportation, represent a severe test of the “Field of Dreams” launching instructions. If they drive them, will riders come?
Having traveled the line, designated the “Route 54 County Connector,” roundtrip from Zephyrhills to the Trinity hospital recently, I can say without hesitation: Winning converts is going to take time.
And, that’s a generous review. The trip, which, even following the bus’ roundabout circuit, could have been accomplished by car in about two hours, took more than twice as long.
Possibly because of this snail’s pace, there were long stretches where I was the only passenger aboard. At its most crowded — after a late-afternoon stop at the Wiregrass campus of Pasco-Hernando State College — I shared my ride with five others.
Not that you can’t meet pleasant company along the way, among them Jonathan Funnel (pronounced “foo-NELL,” accent on the second syllable), 25, who routinely rides from the Zephyrhills City Hall stop to The Groves for his job at the Cobb cineplex.
Funnel, who reports he loves all movies, everything having to do with baseball, plus the NFL’s Packers and Eagles, likes that the bus drops him near the Grove’s Dick’s Sporting Goods store. “It’s heaven,” he says.
Among the notes jotted by Funnel’s traveling companion: “We rode together about 25 minutes. A car couldn’t have done much better.” Our driver, Jose Rojas, 62, a retired postal worker from Land O’ Lakes who piloted heavy machinery as a Marine, observes pleasantly, “Today’s been rainy. There’s no traffic. I love it.”
About then the radio squawks. The bus out of Zephyrhills goes only as far as The Shops at Wiregrass. There, in the parking garage, westbound passengers switch. But, the connector, bound from Trinity, is caught in a snarl triggered by a crash near Collier Parkway.
“Uh-oh,” Rojas murmurs. When we arrive at the mall terminus, the driver apologizes for the delay with a what-are-you-gonna-do shrug, adding “He’ll be along in a while.”
He’s seven minutes early, so he gets out and stretches, groaning pleasantly. No passengers board before Rojas makes his on-time departure, half-a-million-dollars of empty bus.
“A while” turns out to be most of a half hour, which allows time to strike up a conversation with Odette Rennie, 69, a Virgin Islander who settled in a Land O’ Lakes village along State Road 54 sometime after a nearly catastrophic accident in Los Angeles broke her right arm in three places and convinced her to swear off personal transportation almost completely.
She’ll ride if her husband or son are driving. Otherwise, she takes the bus, even though she concedes — as do many fans of public transportation — managing the last half-mile home presents challenges of its own. Some days it’s brutally hot. Today, near the Ferman new car dealership, she exits into a downpour, lamenting she’d left her big umbrella at home.
Worse, because the bus is designed to drop passengers onto raised platforms, Rennie makes a big step onto an unpaved shoulder, punctuating the maneuver, “Ow, wow!”
After that, riders come and go singly. One seems to have just finished a shift at Big Lots; he falls asleep immediately. Another, at the Suncoast Parkway, has come from a bike ride. He loads his two-wheeler on the front, drops coins in the slot, slumps into a seat and, buds in ears, studies his smartphone. Farther up, a boarding passenger complains that the bus is late. She doesn’t want to hear about the accident.
Nobody does. If the buses are adequate, and this one is more than that, nothing kills ridership quite like blown schedules. On the day they snipped the ribbon, Commissioner Kathryn Starkey conceded as much. “We’ll never get people out of their cars as long as buses can get stuck in traffic. We need real bus rapid transit” — that is, buses traveling in lanes reserved only for buses.
Still, if you’re not in a rush, there’s something to be said for riding, especially if you take one of the scenic seats a couple of steps up in the back. Not driving means you can fixate on industrious egrets following a tractor-drawn mower hacking through a pasture. Not driving and sitting up high means you finally see over the reeds to the little lagoon with a small dock framed in lattice west of Keystone Community Church.
Being alone, being chauffeured, means your thoughts can wander. I’m thinking, from time to time, riding the bus just might be therapeutic. And, at $3 a roundtrip, it will be cheaper than any shrink.
This is the buzz in my head at the end of my four-hour odyssey. It could have been worse. And my mind is oddly at ease. If I’m ever not in a hurry again, I could do this.
Published Oct. 19, 2016