TAMPA — Floridians love their cars and are not about to give them up to board buses or light rail.
So goes the argument by those who oppose more public spending on mass transit. Transportation funding, the transit critics say, should go toward widening snarled roads or building new ones.
But hundreds of Floridians who work at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital forego driving personal vehicles for van pools or buses and they're loving it. Not only are they saving money on gas and vehicle wear and tear, but they're enjoying a small sense of community with workers they might never have met.
“It's like a little family,” said Cheryl Tyler, an information security officer at the hospital. “We network with each other to find the best places to shop, the best books or the best movies. Some of them sleep.”
Haley workers are among the 37,155 Department of Veterans Affairs employees nationwide who take advantage of a transit benefit for federal employees. The program subsidizes the costs for van pools and public bus transportation and provides a $20-a-month stipend for bicycle commuting.
At Haley, 240 employees use 27 van pools. They receive vouchers for $185 a month to cover the cost of the van, provided by a private company, and the gas.
Another 180 Haley workers ride HART public buses, which come and go from the University Area Transit Center across the street from the hospital. The federal transit benefit pays for monthly bus passes.
“We're just kind of kicking off the bike program,” said Karen Collins, the hospital's public affairs director. Collins said she rode a bike to work at a VA hospital in New Orleans and wants to see the bike stipend gain popularity at Haley.
In 2012, Congress raised the allowable monthly transit benefit from $125 to $245 a month per federal employee. More than 13,000 VA employees nationwide had reported that the $125-a-month subsidy did not cover their transit costs, according to a March 4 memo from a VA official.
With the increased subsidy, the nationwide cost for the VA's share of the transit benefit is just over $50 million.
Asked why they use transit instead of their own cars, most Haley employees cited the savings in gas and wear and tear on their personal vehicles.
Tyler, who drives a van from Brooksville, says the pool probably saves her $300 a month in gas.
Rutten Olivares, a housekeeper at the hospital, lives 25 miles from work. He figures he saves $80 a week in gas plus wear and tear on the family car by taking the van pool.
During an interview, Olivares held out his arms to show off two tattoos of puzzle pieces, the universal symbol representing the mysteries surrounding autism. Two of Olivares' five children suffer from the disability. Taking the van frees the family's one car so Olivares' wife can take the two autistic children to the doctor.
“I'm glad I found a van pool because that extra money can go towards” his kids, he said.
Some Haley workers don't have cars and would have a hard time getting to work without transit. Laura Palmer, a medical records technician, is legally blind. She boards a HART bus at 6:40 a.m. at her town home community on west Fletcher Avenue and arrives at the hospital at 7:30.
Because of her disability, Palmer can't risk crossing busy Fletcher Avenue to the hospital on the initial approach, so she waits until the bus loops around and drops her closer to the building. That adds 10 to 15 minutes to her commute.
Palmer was one of the voters on the losing side of a 2010 referendum to increase the county sales tax for road improvements, more buses and a light rail system. Though she is appreciative of the federal transit benefit, Palmer said she would like to see more travel options.
“I think if they developed high speed rail that would be wonderful,” she said. “That would save gas and the environment. It would be a big improvement.”
For Rodney Roberson, a car is not an option because he can't afford one. For five years he rode a HART bus from his home downtown to his job as a bed maker and cleaner at the hospital. Three weeks ago he moved closer to work and now rides his bike to work.
Roberson, a veteran who is effusive in his praise for the VA, said he could have gotten to work without the bus, but having it available made his life much easier. And, like Tyler and her van pool mates, Roberson said he struck up friendships with other riders on the bus.
“The bus system caters to everyone; there is no discrimination,” he said. “It becomes like a family affair. You get to know people. And you get to know who to avoid.”