In the mid '90s, the fledgling Pasco County Public Transportation ran buses only two days a week on a few routes along the west side. The windows were tinted dark because county officials didn't want people to see the buses were empty. At least that was the joke.
They're still not exactly full, but ridership is way up. In 2007, PCPT transported a million riders — almost half on their way to or from work.
Small wonder that when Pasco County officials were talking about transportation budget cuts last week no one mentioned mass transit. PCPT has become an indispensable service.
That is quite a contrast to Hernando County, where once again THE Bus mass transit service is endangered. There's talk about trimming the already sparse service from five to four days a week; others say the service is inefficient and want to scrap the buses entirely.
Not so fast.
Mass transit is never profitable, not even in the big cities with dense employment centers. With congestion and the price of parking, mass transit is the only way for many urban commuters to get to work.
But here in Florida, we've long enjoyed the freedom of driving where and whenever we want. The car is king.
As the price of gas climbs closer to $4, more motorists might just be tempted to give THE Bus another look. Unfortunately, the Hernando system isn't a very appealing option. Buses run on the hour, and too many neighborhoods never see a bus. Cutting back service would turn off even more potential riders.
This might be whistling in the wind, but expanding the service might just attract more riders.
It happened in Pasco.
PCPT started in 1996 with a two-day-a-week service on two separate routes along U.S. 19 and Little Road.
Over the years, the service expanded to five days a week — first in west Pasco, then in Dade City and Zephyrhills. Buses ran longer hours to accommodate commuters. You can now catch a bus on Saturday.
One of the biggest changes came in 2005, when buses along busy U.S. 19 began running every half-hour instead of every hour. Thirty minutes makes a big difference when you're trying to get to work on time.
Federal and state grants paid for much of the mass transit expansion. And to be fair, Pasco, with its dense corridors on the west side, is much better suited to a viable mass transit service than its northern neighbor.
It takes political guts to spend when the budget is so tight. But it would be a pity to give up on something that will only get more valuable as the county continues to grow.
As the price of gas escalates, it may have at least one positive effect: more advocates for THE Bus.
Andrew Skerritt can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602.