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County looks to make THE Bus more viable

BROOKSVILLE — When County Commissioner Jim Adkins this week advocated parking the county's public transit buses, he said the buses cost too much to operate.

"It's between a $500,000 and $700,000 cost to the taxpayer; we just can't afford it no more for the one-tenth of 1 percent who ride it," Adkins said.

What would it take to pull the keys from the ignition legally, Adkins asked, and what would be the implications?

Commission Chairman Dave Russell says he had that question answered loud and clear Wednesday by a regional transportation expert.

Park the buses and kiss goodbye any help from the Florida Department of Transportation and other state and federal transit funding now and into the future, Russell said he was told. And as the greater Tampa Bay area is just beginning to plan for future regional transportation, that kind of decision would be a mistake, he said.

"The DOT has been very good to Hernando County over the years, and I would hate to see that change," Russell said.

Instead, Russell said the county needs to redouble its efforts to find a plan for the transit system, known as THE Bus, that will make it more viable and less of a drain on county taxpayers.

Russell and County Administrator David Hamilton met on Wednesday with the executive director for the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, Bob Clifford.

At the meeting, they shared the brief discussion of THE Bus prompted by Adkins at Tuesday's County Commission meeting. Russell said he learned that, while the DOT and TBARTA know that Hernando County's transit system has some problems, they have also vowed to help find a solution.

The district's DOT secretary "has pledged DOT assistance and allocations to Hernando County to the extent to make it succeed up here," Russell said.

"Transit has become the more regional approach to transportation," he said, noting that more federal dollars are going into transit. And throughout the region and the state, counties are looking at their transit plans.

Hamilton said that THE Bus "is trying to be too many things to too few people." The amount the county has to contribute to keep the buses running is still too high, he said.

But Hamilton said commissioners need to see all of the information.

"These issues need to be considered in the broader context before the board makes a decision," he said.

On the very afternoon that Adkins was talking about parking THE Bus, one county to the north, the Citrus County Commission voted to start a limited fixed-route transit system. Citrus has a door-to-door transit system and has tried a fixed-route plan before.

The secret in Citrus is "they got their business community to buy into it," Russell said. "That's important for us, too."

Hernando commissioners referred their discussion about THE Bus to their newly adopted standing committees. They were interested in a full discussion of all the related issues by both the new Budget and Finance Committee and the Business and Economic Development Committee.

Russell said it would make sense to send the issue first to the committee on economic development.

"We have to talk about how we can make this venture a success because it hasn't been," Russell said.

Already, a list of more than a half-dozen ways to do that has been placed on the table for discussion. Engaging the business community is just one of them. One way to do that, Russell said, is to tell business owners more about the tax incentives available for businesses that promote transit.

Connectivity is another key feature, and, now that Citrus County is getting more involved with transit, new opportunities exist to connect to routes there. That idea has already been discussed with Hernando connecting with Pasco County's transit system.

Russell also said that another goal is to find ways to reduce by 10 percent the amount of subsidy that county taxpayers provide for transit services.

The county's six fixed-route buses and three smaller vans for disabled riders have a total operating budget for this year of $1,858,281. The county's cost is $541,976, with the remainder coming from state and federal funds.

Increasing ridership is key, and, according to Russell, plans are being discussed to adjust the route schedule so it is more focused. The county might decide to run the large buses frequently when commuters might use them early and late in the day, and run the smaller buses for economically disadvantaged and disabled during the day, when the schedule is more flexible.

Russell said there is also talk of finding a way for contributions to transit to become a part of what developers pay as they seek county approval of certain kinds of development.

"We're going to look at all aspects," Russell said. "I believe that we can come up with a viable solution — a viable transit system that doesn't burden the taxpayers."

When Adkins heard Thursday about the conversations county officials had with Clifford, he said, "I'm am glad I brought it up if for nothing else to get communications going and get people thinking."

He is still skeptical about keeping THE Bus on the road, although he said he is willing to listen to ideas about how to make the service more viable.

Adkins is less interested in some of the regional transportation ideas, like a light rail system that would include Hernando County. He called it "a pipe dream" that would be very costly to residents.

"I'm glad this has brought all this out for discussion because keeping (THE Bus) the way we're doing it today cannot go on tomorrow," Adkins said. "With our budget shortfall, the only way to solve our money problems is to quit spending money."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

County looks to make THE Bus more viable 01/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 7:56pm]

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