BROOKSVILLE — Faced with a budget crisis and concerns that ridership isn't justifying costs, the County Commission on Tuesday cut service by THE Bus in half, a move that could save the county $142,000.
Commissioners also decided to reject five new heavy-duty buses available through federal economic stimulus dollars, deciding instead to spend county money to refurbish three existing buses for $45,000 each.
A report detailed four cost-cutting changes to THE Bus, and the board chose the one with the deepest cut: Buses that now hit their stops one hour apart would switch to two hours apart.
No date was set for when the changes would take place. The commissioners sent the issue back to staff to iron out the details.
The changes in route times would cut costs by $420,000. Since state and federal funds pay the lion's share of those costs, Hernando County would save an estimated $142,000.
County Administrator David Hamilton acknowledged that expanding bus service would likely increase ridership, but that now is not the right time to do so.
"We're not into an expansion mode. We're contracting,'' Hamilton said. "The budget is the overriding concern.''
County commissioners heard from residents again telling them to expand, not reduce, service. Other residents complained that the buses are so under-used that public transportation will not work in Hernando County and that THE Bus should be parked.
But commissioners were reluctant to end the service, especially since the transit report showed that many riders of THE Bus would switch to the Transportation Disadvantaged program if THE Bus was parked.
Because the TD service costs so much more to provide, the county's consultant told the board it could cost Hernando $1.4 million to provide that transportation. The county's portion of funding for THE Bus is $511,000 annually.
Hamilton also noted that keeping mass transit means the county can still be part of the regional transportation planning process.
Brooksville Vice Mayor Lara Bradburn also pointed out that not only would the county miss out on regional planning but also road funds, economic development opportunities and building the community. Without those things, "we'll begin to falter even farther,'' Bradburn said.
Commissioners also rejected the chance to seek federal stimulus dollars to replace the county's aging bus fleet. But they rejected the idea because they worried that they would be tied to bus service for the next 10 years by taking the free buses.
Instead, the county had already planned on refurbishing buses. With the change in service approved by the commission, there will be three buses refurbished with hopes of giving them several more years of usefulness.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.