Sandy Cullins has a lot of reasons to like her daily commute to downtown Tampa aboard a HART bus.
She enjoys leaving the driving to someone else.
She likes to save on gas.
And, she can catch up on her sleep.
"I'm one of the few people who actually sleeps" during the trip, said Cullins, who uses HART's Route 28X to and from her job at the Fred B. Karl County Center.
Lately, Cullins and her fellow riders have been concerned that their ride is going to come to an end.
Hillsborough Area Regional Transit is considering eliminating the express route that services a park and ride lot at Mount Zion Assembly of God, 3005 Thonotosassa Road, just outside the Plant City municipal limits.
Route 28X offers HART's only service in the Plant City area. Buses on the route also stop at Burnett Park in Seffner.
"This is hitting us in the pocketbook," said Paige Ward, a Plant City resident and county employee who is organizing opposition to the proposal.
Debbie Franklin, who lives in Plant City and works at the county center, said the bus ride from the church lot, just north of Interstate 4, is her best option for getting to work.
"I think they really should reconsider. For me, it's going to be a hardship," she said.
HART says it can save a little more than $250,000 per year by eliminating Route 28X, also known as the East County Express. HART buses on the route make two runs a day, two westbound in the morning and two eastbound in the afternoon.
HART evaluates its service periodically and is contemplating eliminating Route 28X as it seeks to save money and focus on routes that serve the most riders, agency spokeswoman Marcia Mejia said. On average, a total of eight to 10 riders board each morning at Mount Zion, she said.
Route 28X had a total of 13,420 rider trips in 2011, a drop of 2 percent from the previous year, Mejia said.
Agency officials will weigh comments from riders as it prepares a recommendation for Monday's HART board meeting, she said. Board members will decide Route 28X's fate.
Any changes would be effective Nov. 11, Mejia said.
HART doesn't stop inside the city limits because Plant City voters have twice rejected a special property tax to pay for the service. For four years, ending in 2008, the city had its own bus service, but eliminated it due to poor ridership and escalating costs.
On a recent day, riders who use the HART stops at both Mount Zion and Burnett Park worried how they'll get to and from Tampa if their route is eliminated.
"I don't drive at all," said Denise Cryer, who lives in Seffner and works at SunTrust in downtown Tampa. She said her only alternative would be to try to carpool with some fellow riders.
For Plant City riders, HART's nearest stop for an express bus would be a park-and-ride lot at Dover Road and State Road 60, about 10 miles from Mount Zion. Seffner riders would be closer to other express bus stops would still lose the convenience of current service.
"This is my only means of transportation to Tampa," said Kelly Gonzalez, who travels from Seffner to reach her job with the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court.
Many riders have cars, but prefer to take the bus and relax rather than fight traffic in and out of Tampa.
George Suhr, a Plant City resident who works at Tampa City Hall, said he likes riding the bus for convenience and camaraderie. He said riders have gotten to know each other so well that it's almost like a family.
Ward said the commuters celebrate each others milestones; she recently led the bus in the "Happy Birthday" song to mark Cryer's birthday.
Riders also watch out for one another and make sure that no one is left at the park-and-ride lot at the end of the day, Ward said.
"If someone is stranded or needs a ride home, we are there for them. We won't leave anyone behind," she said.
Ward hopes that, at worst, HART trims service to one bus each way per day.
"Most of us will have to make an adjustment in the time we take the bus, but that will still work," she said.
Trimming service to one bus each way per day is one of the options that HART is looking at, Mejia said.
Ward has spoken twice at public meetings and feels that HART officials understand the support for at least one Plant City area bus per day. She has organized letter-writing campaigns to reinforce the message.
"I felt like they are listening," she said. "I think they are listening to what we have had to say."
The riders have a sympathetic ear in County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who said he has used the Route 28X bus on occasion, although not recently. Higginbotham has written a letter to support the route and expects to meet with HART's director to voice his opinion.
Higginbotham, a Plant City area resident, said he understands tight budget times but that sometimes government needs to offer a "safety net" to its residents. He said he lobbied for the stop off I-4 when he was elected six years ago.
"I think it is a terrific service for people in that part of east Hillsborough County," he said.
"A lot of people depend on it."
The East County Express
Here's the current weekday schedule for HART Route 28X:
Eastbound buses leave at 6:20 a.m. and 6:50 a.m. from the park and ride lot at Mount Zion Assembly of God Church, 3005 Thonotosassa Road, Plant City.
The bus stops at Burnett Park off County Road 579 to pick up Seffner passengers before arriving at the Marion Transit Center in Tampa at 7:08 and 7:41 a.m., respectively.
Westbound buses leave the Tampa transit center at 4:40 p.m. and 5:15, and after stopping at Burnett Park arrive at Mount Zion at 5:30 p.m. and 6:05 p.m., respectively.
There is no weekend or holiday service