Pinellas bus riders to U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor: We want more frequent service!

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Congress woman Kathy Castor took a ride on a Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus this morning to find out what her constituents need in a bus system. During what she calls a transit town hall, Castor spoke with about a half-dozen regular bus riders about their commutes. The most common theme: buses don’t run frequently enough.

As Castor boarded the number 4 bus at the University of South Florida St. Pete campus, she immediately sat down with a senior citizen named Oriskia. She told Castor she rides the bus to get to doctor’s appointments and that eats up most of her day just to get there and back. As she chatted with Castor she kept one hand on her knee and another on a rolling basket full of groceries. Today she decided to spend an hour on the bus just to get four or five bags of groceries.

Oriskia got off the bus few stops later as it headed south on Fourth Street through parts of midtown and South St. Pete toward Pinellas Point Drive. As riders stepped on and off the bus, Castor continued listening to their stories and offering help where it was available. She handed out cards left and right and staff members jotted down notes to follow-up on various woes.

Most riding the bus were Castor’s constituents. Most of her district is in Tampa, but she also covers parts of downtown St. Pete and the Southside. Santesha Jones is a 19-year old student at PTEC and an overnight stocker at Wal-Mart. Though she lives in Pinellas Point where the closest Wal-Mart is only a few minutes away. Her store is in Largo though. Jones told Castor she spends about an hour and a half on the bus each way.

“When do you sleep,” Castor asked after Jones explained she heads straight to school from work most days.

“It’s hard,” Jones answered, her body tired but her eyes wide. “I have to go back at ten.”

But that means Jones has to hop on a bus at 8 p.m. to make in to her 10 o’clock shift. If she sleeps on the bus, she could miss her stop. She said she’s never been late for work because of a missed bus, but that’s because she’s careful to always be at her stop early. Under proposed changes to the bus system, many routes would run every 15-minutes.

This election will be the first in which Jones is eligible to vote. She didn’t know about the Greenlight Pinellas plan that would allow students and workers like her to have it just a little easier.

The plan would increase sales tax from 7% to 8% with additional revenue going toward a passenger rail line from downtown St. Pete to Clearwater, but that part of the plan would take years to implement. Proponents of the plan say the most immediate impacts would be more buses more often. That was good news to Jones.

So too was it for a young Haitian immigrant who works and goes to school. His only means of transportation is the bus and his bike. He strapped his bike onto the front of the bus and sat down ready for a long commute and an even longer day.

Then there’s Denice Grady, who can’t drive because she suffers from seizures. She gets frustrated relying on public transportation because it makes simple errands an all day affair.

“I’m not usually late because I time it right,” Grady said. “But it would be nice not to have to leave so early.”

Perhaps the most productive conversation Castor had on her 40-minute bus trip was with Bria McGrady. She’s a recent Gibbs High School Graduate and is a sophomore at Saint Petersburg College. The aspiring optometrist takes the bus everywhere.

“I spend a lot of time on the bus,” McGrady said.

Unlike the other riders, McGrady knows all about the Greenlight plan.

“I like [it],” she said. “I actually wrote a paper [for school] on it.”

Opponents of Greenlight Pinellas, namely the group No Tax for Tracks, like to argue the sales tax increase is regressive and falls on the backs of the poor. Supporters prefer to call it a tax swap because it would replace the portion of property taxes currently collected for public transportation. But many bus users don’t own homes. Opponents also say the plan doesn’t benefit people in South St. Pete where some of the city’s poorest residents live.

Castor’s bus experience shows that’s not the case. While the proposed passenger rail line stops at downtown St. Pete, residents further south will benefit from increases in services and frequency as well as bus rapid transit. One rider even debunked the claim that pumping more money into PSTA won’t necessarily attract riders who have a choice whether to drive a car or ride a bus.

“I don’t want a car,” said VA home healthcare worker Julie Farner. She didn’t know about Greenlight Pinellas but said a little more in sales tax is a small price to pay for easier mobility without a personal vehicle. She hopes the plan will add a route going directly to Duhme Road in Seminole and better service between there and the beach. She complained it’s faster to walk from her home in Madeira Beach to the VA than it is to catch the bus.

That’s not the only thing she’s hoping PSTA changes though.

“It’s too cold,” she mused through chattering teeth.

When the number 4 circled back to USFSP, Castor thanked the bus driver who, at a couple of stops, had to wait patiently for riders to greet her before getting off at their stops. The destination was a press conference for a new program that allows USFSP students and faculty to ride the bus for free.

“We need to ensure that these students on the go can get to where they need to be,” Castor said.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.