06/01/2023 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 06/01/2023 12:46
Whenever Steven Brown visited the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in St. Petersburg, Fla., he always noticed how many veterans were at the bus stop, either waiting for a ride or getting dropped off.
"It's constant," Brown said, who was a E-4 fighter jet maintainer in the Navy and is now a student at USF St. Petersburg. "And not just in Pinellas County. I've worked with veterans in Texas and spoke with social workers at the VA. One of the biggest issues is getting veterans to and from their medical appointments because some don't have a car and others have disabilities that prevent them from driving."
So during his government class, where students tackle an issue and present their solution to the relevant governing body, Brown saw an opportunity. He and a group of students (Nathan Tout-Puissant, Andrew Alan, and Navaeh Coleman) developed a proposal to allow Pinellas County disabled veterans to ride public buses for free.
That proposal is now official policy.
In March, Brown and fellow students presented their proposal in front of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) Board of Directors and received a positive response. On May 24, the board took up a vote on the proposal and approved it overwhelmingly.
"This proposal will improve access to medical care while cutting costs for disabled vets. It will also improve quality of life, making it more convenient to go to the grocery store or visit family more often," Brown said.
The board even went one step further, passing a motion to allow all Pinellas County veterans to ride PSTA buses for free starting November 10, 2023.
"It is a worthwhile expense and I believe we have the capacity to do this," said Pinellas County Commissioner and PSTA board of director member Chris Latvala, who made the motion to include all veterans at the meeting. "People who defend our country should be at the top of the list of those deserving free rides on our buses."
The student research team won "Best of 2023" award at the Undergraduate Research Conference at USF St. Petersburg.
For months, Brown had been in touch with PSTA staff members, including James Phillips, a transit planner and fellow veteran who was instrumental in making the proposal a reality. He also engaged with officials in city and county government to accomplish his goal. His persistence paid off.
"This group of students identified a relevant problem, researched possible solutions, developed a viable proposal and presented a strong case," said Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, the Frank E. Duckwall Professor of Florida Studies who taught the class. "I had advised them to start small, with a pilot program, for greater probability of success. But PSTA leaders saw the real benefit this change would have on our community and decided to expand it."
Now Brown is working to get the word out about the free transit, so veterans in the county take full advantage.
He is also hoping to expand his idea beyond just Pinellas County. He is in talks with state representatives, members of Congress and various veterans' organizations to take the proposal statewide.
"This class really got me to think how you can affect real change in society if you have the tools and motivation at your disposal," Brown said, who plans on advocating for veteran issues his entire life. "It's been an honor to be able to make a positive change that improves the community welfare of veterans."