BROOKSVILLE — When the county doubled wait times for THE Bus in 2009, it came as no surprise that ridership took a nosedive.
Now, county officials are talking about revamping routes, shortening wait times and, hopefully, gaining back some riders.
The county's Metropolitan Planning Organization recently voted to have county staffers begin the approval process for a new route system devised by McDonald Transit Associates, the current operator of THE Bus, Hernando County's much-maligned public transit system, which took to the road in 2002.
When McDonald Transit took over THE Bus in April, part of its charge from the county was to spend six months operating the system, then come up with some ideas for how to make it better without substantially raising the cost.
Tim Lett, senior vice president of McDonald Transit, recently presented his recommended route plan to the members of the MPO, comprised of the five county commissioners and a Brooksville City Council representative.
Nearly all of the areas now served by THE Bus would continue to have service under the proposal, except for a small stretch of the U.S. 41 corridor through Brooksville.
Lett's proposal would make the purple route the spine of the transit system by creating a route that would connect Brooksville with Spring Hill without requiring a transfer at Mariner Square, at Mariner and Cortez boulevards, as the current schedule does.
That route would also provide direct service to the new Pasco-Hernando Community College campus in Spring Hill. And, it would provide additional service in Brooksville along the State Road 50 bypass, west of U.S. 41.
A redesigned blue route would follow a more direct north-south route between Mariner Square and Spring Hill Regional Hospital, in addition to a new stop at the Publix at Seven Hills.
The revised red route would include more direct service along Deltona and Northcliffe boulevards and to the Spring Hill Walmart on U.S. 19.
In each case, the bus would run every one hour and 15 minutes, rather than the current two hours. Lett explained that any wait longer than an hour discourages people from using a transit system, though the changes would still be an improvement for THE Bus.
The recommended option would increase total daily hours of operation to 43 from 36.. The contract cost would increase to $555,490 from $465,060. Federal and state grants pay for the majority of the cost; the county would see its share increase to $138,872 from $116,265.
Ron Pianta, director of land services for the county, said that the Transportation Trust Fund can be tapped to pay the extra $22,607.
Fares — including the basic one-way fare of $1.25 — would remain the same.
Lett also projected three to five years into the future in his proposal, with the potential of a green route that could provide bus service to the Hernando County Airport and Industrial Park.
That route could also include a transfer point at the Suncoast Parkway and a park-and-ride site, which would be in keeping with the regional transportation hopes of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.
The proposed future green route could connect with Spring Hill and the Walmart in Brooksville.
That route would cost about $170,000 a year, of which $42,500 would have to come from local dollars. Another bus would also be needed.
Even with the current recommended route changes, a fourth bus would need to be added to the daily operation. Lett warned members of the MPO that of the five existing buses, including spares, two are nearing the end of their lives and two others are a model for which spare parts are difficult to find.
MPO member Dave Russell said he would have trouble supporting the purchase of buses, and member Jeff Stabins asked where the county was supposed to find the matching funds. The match could be accomplished by applying transportation development credits, said Vera Matthews, who oversees operation of THE Bus. Those credits come from state toll road collections.
The reconfigured routes were praised by officials at PHCC, who have been asking for service to the new Spring Hill campus.
"It would certainly benefit our students,'' said Bonnie Clark, associate provost of the campus.
Clark said that some students have been walking to the campus, and that there are safety concerns. She also noted that the campus was built to accommodate bus traffic.
MPO member Lara Bradburn said the new route plan was needed, especially because it would reduce the waiting time, take passengers to destinations they want to go and "puts customers closer to home.''
"I really think you will see a substantial increase in ridership,'' Bradburn said.
Lett predicted that ridership could increase from 71,000 passengers a year to as many as 110,000 with the new route system.
Changing the routes requires a series of steps, including a public hearing before the County Commission. If approved, the changes could take effect between spring and fall of 2012, according to Dennis Dix, the county's transportation coordinator.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.