BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County's much-maligned public transit system saw a small uptick in ridership during the last half of 2012, after the length of time between buses was shortened to 75 minutes.
From July to November, approximately 3 percent more riders hopped on THE Bus than during the same period in 2011, when the wait time was two hours.
The transit system also has more than doubled the revenue it collects from the wrapping-style advertising on bus exteriors. While the average during recent years was about $10,000, this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, has already yielded $23,500.
While the positive numbers bode well after last year's changes, the system's future dominated discussion during Tuesday's Metropolitan Planning Organization workshop.
MPO and community members talked about several improvements in bus service that they want to see rise to the top of the county's priority list.
They include lengthening the hours THE Bus operates so more people would be able to use the service to get to and from work, connecting the Hernando service with Pasco County's transit services and creating a new route that would provide access along the length of Spring Hill Drive, including the county's airport and industrial parks.
Talk of those types of improvements are a far cry from just a few years ago, when the County Commission came close to parking THE Bus after revenues fell short of projections, and some residents blasted the system as a bus with no riders.
The MPO, composed of the five county commissioners and Brooksville Mayor Lara Bradburn, act on and make recommendations regarding transportation issues, projects and priorities.
MPO member Diane Rowden said she would like to see the Hernando and Pasco transit systems overlap at the new Spring Hill campus of Pasco-Hernando Community College, off U.S. 19.
Planners from both counties are looking at that possibility, and the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority is studying the idea, said Dennis Dix, the county's transportation coordinator.
"There is an active discussion going on with Pasco transit,'' Dix said.
MPO member Nick Nicholson said he wanted to see longer hours of service so people could take THE Bus to work in the morning and be able to ride it home at the end of a normal workday.
Now, the routes into Brooksville end at 3:30 p.m., long before many people get off work, Nicholson noted.
"That would increase ridership and help the community tremendously,'' he said.
Dix said it would be a fairly cost-effective change, and Nicholson asked him to bring details to a future meeting.
"With the price of gas at almost $4 a gallon, we could probably get more riders,'' Rowden said.
Former Planning and Zoning Commission member Anthony Palmieri said he had long been a supporter of a new route to run on Spring Hill Drive from U.S. 19 to U.S. 41, opening up access to shopping centers and industrial areas.
"Maybe we're not giving this the priority we should be giving it,'' Palmieri said.
MPO member Dave Russell, who hasn't always been a supporter of THE Bus, explained why the fixed-route system is so crucial to the community.
The federal government requires Hernando County to provide door-to-door transportation for those in need of it for medical and other critical services, and that service costs more than four times what service on THE Bus costs.
Federal and state dollars pay the majority of the cost to run THE Bus. Were the county to shut it down, Russell said, the funding would dry up, and Hernando County taxpayers would have to foot the bill for an expanded door-to-door program because about a quarter of the riders of THE Bus would then need the door-to-door service.
Russell called the county's decision to operate THE Bus "the pragmatic approach'' to meet the county's transit needs.
Longtime bus advocate Lucille Marano of Spring Hill said people who do not use the transit system don't understand how important it is for those who do, including the disabled and those who have lost the ability or the right to drive.
"This bus system is a lifeline and a way of life,'' Marano said.
She said she would love to see the schedule and routes for THE Bus better serve community college students, people in the workforce and those who need transportation to the airport industrial parks.
"Without transportation, commerce can't come in,'' she said. "We have to keep all the spokes in the wheel.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.