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Hernando County bus system gains riders, loses critics

Ridership on THE Bus system in Hernando County is growing and the County Commission recently approved buying a new bus.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times (2013)

Ridership on THE Bus system in Hernando County is growing and the County Commission recently approved buying a new bus.

Everybody's on board with THE Bus, probably because more people are boarding buses.

The County Commission agreed last week to spend $385,000 on a new bus for Hernando's mass transit system.

The money comes from the federal government, meaning it won't cost the county a dime, which would seem to make this an unremarkable decision. That would be true, except that it's a complete reversal of a 2009 vote, when the commission had a chance to replace most of its fleet with five new buses, but — wary of accepting a politically poisonous federal handout for the equally toxic local transit system — turned down $1.5 million.

Also last week, the commission agreed to let staffers negotiate a contract with a company that will build bus shelters and benches for the right to plaster them with advertising. Once again, it shouldn't cost the county a thing, and it would hardly be worth mentioning, except that this deal is for the bus system, and the commission approved it without a word of protest.

What's changed?

I would say the commission has come to its senses except that, with its recent rejections of fluoridating water and charging school impact fees, I know for a fact this is not true.

Probably, it has more to do with the way THE Bus is functioning — as a valuable public service with a growing sector of voters who depend on it.

At Tuesday's meeting, even gadfly Hamilton Hanson just offered his standard objection, which is that the bus routes don't go where people live. Though he didn't come out and say it, this means the county's most visible tea partier favors a more expensive system, which it would be if buses meandered through residential neighborhoods.

Even without such a convenience, people are finding their way onto buses. In the first four months of the current fiscal year, the number of riders has climbed nearly 20 percent compared to the same period last year.

And unlike previous changes in ridership, this can't be explained by a big alteration in fares or routes.

You can't even put it on gas prices, which are slightly lower than last year. No, the best explanation is that the commission has made slight, reasonable changes to the system in the past two years, when it dropped the wait time between buses from two hours to 75 minutes. People have just gotten to know the system and find it useful.

So we have a happy ending here, right?

No, because that rejected federal grant is long gone — and not saved, either — just redistributed to Citrus County, which has a new central bus terminal partly paid for with what should have been our transportation money.

And, putting aside the one new bus, we're left with the scraps of federal funding — $150,000 to buy and fix buses that have seen years of service in Hillsborough County.

The one good thing about this is that it's such a tiny sum in the realm of transportation dollars that nobody could possibly complain about the expense of mass transit. Especially if you compare it to the cost of the current system of building enough roads and enough lanes so everyone can conveniently drive where they want in their own cars. For example, the ongoing widening of just a few miles of State Road 50 is costing us $40 million.

We darn well should be on board with THE Bus.

Hernando County bus system gains riders, loses critics 03/28/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2014 6:35pm]
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