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Need a lift? You're not alone, job seekers say

A sprawling county and limited bus service make it tough to get around. It's difficult to hire, too.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003

Mechelle Landon rides a school bus each morning from her parents' home in Homosassa to the Withlacoochee Technical Institute, where she is studying to be a medical secretary.

Her routine is no different from the other students on the bus except for one glaring detail: Landon is 34 years old.

"I catch the bus in the same spot I did 17 years ago," she said.

Landon, who is rebuilding her life after leaving court-appointed drug rehabilitation in April, endures strange looks because she needs the ride. As a WTI student, she is entitled to public transportation.

Getting to her job at Applebee's in Crystal River is another matter. While she saves money for a car, Landon has to catch a ride from her parents.

"I don't know what I would do without them. I would be stuck," she said.

The feeling is shared by others, according to workers and advocates for the poor.

"Transportation is a major challenge, especially for our disadvantaged population," said Susan Roberts, executive director of One Stop Workforce Connection, which is helping 200 Citrus residents transition from welfare to work.

Many of those people can find jobs, but some have to pass because of lack of mobility. Relying on friends for rides can sometimes result in missed work or tardiness, which hurts employers, officials said.

The problem may be overshadowed by the debate over new roads, including the Suncoast Parkway, but it is visible.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Economic Development Council, more than half of employers cited the lack of public transportation options as a concern. But their concern was focused on getting consumers to their businesses, and not necessarily attracting employees, said EDC president James Harvey.

Still, he agreed transportation could be a problem for job seekers. The problem in Citrus County stems from a couple of main factors.

First, the area is spread out, making it difficult for people to walk to a job.

Also, the county's bus system is limited in scope. The system is geared mainly to the elderly and disabled and runs near full capacity. People call to arrange a ride and the bus picks them up at their home for a nominal fee.

Door-to-door service is ideal for people who cannot walk to a bus stop, but not for someone needing a ride to work.

Buses run from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., which poses problems for people with jobs.

"We are aware of some of the shortcomings of the transportation system and we are always looking to improve that," said Brad Thorpe, community services director for Citrus County.

One of the major responses from a survey conducted about two years ago was the need for more coverage and increased hours, Thorpe said.

The bus system operates on a $1.2-million budget, most of it coming from federal and state funding. It is a losing proposition, Thorpe said, adding that the prospect for a large budget increase is dim.

Still, the county is taking steps to meet that demand: In January, the county applied for funding for six additional buses from the Florida Department of Transportation.

If approved by the state and then the County Commission, the buses would be used for a pilot project that would create fixed routes.

A bus could run from Crystal River Mall to Kash n' Karry in Homosassa. A similar north-south route could be established in Inverness, and perhaps one from Crystal River to Inverness, with a transfer in Lecanto.

"That would be great," Landon said when told of the possibility. "I can see it now. I would ride the bus to Applebee's. I'd ride on the bus to Wal-Mart.

"If they had something like that in Citrus County, it would bless everybody, not just me."

-- Alex Leary can be reached at 564-3623 or .

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