BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County's mass transit system was rescued on Thursday after being declared "on life support'' as the county worked to cut millions in spending from its general fund, .
Commissioners agreed to explore keeping the program alive one more year by revamping the service and funding it through the county's Transportation Trust Fund, with the goal of moving its oversight to regional transportation authorities based in Tampa.
Commissioner Dave Russell pitched the plan during the second day of budget workshops.
Low ridership has left THE Bus on the list of services to consider cutting for three years as property values and tax revenues have fallen. Last year, the county changed the service to every two hours rather than every hour. That meant people who commute to work can't rely on the bus, county transportation coordinator Dennis Dix told commissioners.
Russell said Transportation Trust Fund money could be used to pay the county's portion of the service, alleviating the need for dollars from the general fund.
Keeping THE Bus would have cost general fund $351,581 in 2011. The rest of the money would have come from other sources including $786,825 from federal and $388,959 from state funds.
In addition, the county contributes $140,956 to the Transportation Disadvantaged door-to-door service. Both services are run through Mid-Florida Community Services.
Bus operator Michael Georgini told commissioners he could run any bus service they asked him to run and he put in a special plea to keep the contribution to the Transportation Disadvantaged program. That program, which is already at capacity, would likely get an influx of new clients if service by THE Bus ends.
Georgini said he would have trouble telling a resident who needed transportation to some life-sustaining medical service that there was no capacity to handle their trip.
Taking money from the Transportation Trust Fund, which is a separate tax on property owners' bills, shouldn't be too big a hit, Russell said. He said this is because the county has received millions of dollars in federal stimulus monies for road projects in the last year, and those projects have been coming in at a lower price than usual. This means the Transportation Trust Fund has some funds left over while the general fund does not.
The other part of Russell's plan is to coordinate operation of THE Bus through the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, the agency charged with developing and implementing a master transportation plan for seven counties of West Central Florida from Citrus to Sarasota.
"I'd like to see them take it over,'' Russell said. In fact, he said, after talking to officials with the agency, "They're itching for this opportunity.''
Commissioner Jeff Stabins praised Russell for the idea and Commissioner Rose Rocco said the plan was "a big plus for us.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.