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Hernando County's tea party-like rejection of federal money handicaps THE Bus

Proving they can get out ahead of a national trend as long as it's a boneheaded one, Hernando County commissioners held their own tea party in April, turning down $1.5 million in stimulus money that would have bought five new buses for the county's transit system.

On Thursday, I saw the hangover.

I'd been invited on a fact-finding bus trip arranged by Commissioner Jeff Stabins. Dennis Dix, the county's transportation expert, would be there. So would several residents, both haters and lovers (no, those words are not too strong) of the THE Bus.

Given this name, I thought it was reasonable to expect that a real bus would arrive at my stop on State Road 50. Instead, I got the kind of van that reminded me of being picked up for an outing by my old church youth group.

The regular bus had broken down, the driver said. The van, normally used for disabled residents, was the only available replacement, and it didn't have enough room for Stabins and his entourage.

I eventually caught up with them for a loop around Spring Hill on a large, boxy, honest-to-goodness bus, where Dix told me the commissioners' vote last year was not, in fact, a self-defeating stand against federal spending.

No, they turned down the grant because they worried it would have required the county to keep the buses running for the next decade.

Of course, the county will have to operate public transit no matter what if it wants to receive its full share of federal transportation money. Meanwhile, there seems to be a dawning realization across the county that mass transit will be part of our future, and for the first time in THE Bus' existence there is real hope that one day it will have a functioning regional and even statewide rail network to link up with.

Which means that if the commission vote wasn't a real tea party, it was just as shortsighted.

Breakdowns like the one Thursday are increasingly common, and the week before had caused a Spring Hill route to be shut down for two full days. But those new buses wouldn't have arrived yet, Dix said, and the system lacks spares only because one bus is getting a major overhaul that should give it several more years of service.

This made me wonder why it's an article of faith that patrol cars need to be replaced as soon as the gloss goes off the first wax job, but we can keep buses on the road as long as there are enough coat hangers and duct tape to hold them together.

Because most voters hate paying for buses and don't seem to mind that the entire system seems to be falling apart. Jerry Hammett, chairman of the Brookridge Republican Club, said most of the riders he'd talked to Thursday had boarded to go shopping or just to get out of the house. "I'm not sure if it's a necessity or a convenience,'' he said.

Since THE Bus' pickups were cut from once every hour to once every two hours six months ago, there's nothing convenient about it, regular riders told me. People can't depend on it to get to work, which is a big reason ridership has dropped roughly in half.

"The government should probably fund this bus more than it does. Not our government, the federal government,'' said Patrick Hramika, 64, a retired Brooksville Police Department dispatcher.

The lesson being, you don't love Washington, but by all means take its money.

Hernando County's tea party-like rejection of federal money handicaps THE Bus 03/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 20, 2010 2:20pm]
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