BROOKSVILLE — A year ago, Hernando County's public transit system cut service in half.
Instead of buses arriving at stops every hour, they arrived every two hours. The less convenient schedule had an immediate and lasting effect on ridership.
The average daily ridership of 519 the service saw the first 11 months of the 2008-09 fiscal year dropped to 280 in 2009-10.
The system — known as THE Bus — was on life support, and criticism grew louder from some in the community who wanted to see the program end. When it came time for the County Commission to discuss funding for the 2010-11 year, which began Oct. 1, the budget office had already proposed eliminating the transit system.
That cut would have saved the county $351,581 for THE Bus and an additional $140,956 that the county contributes to the transportation disadvantaged door-to-door service. An additional $786,825 in federal money and $388,959 in state money would have been lost once the county cut its match.
It seemed that the county was about to pull the plug.
Then everything turned around.
Commissioner Dave Russell suggested that the county fund its match out of the Transportation Trust Fund, a separate figure on Hernando property owners' tax bills. The money is earmarked for transportation projects but, as Russell pointed out, Hernando received millions of dollars in federal stimulus money that had largely met the immediate need for road improvements.
Not only did the commission now have a funding source that took pressure off the general fund, where the biggest revenue shortfall was threatening jobs and services; county officials went a step further.
They started to talk about finding ways to improve the service, make it more attractive to increase ridership and to involve the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, or TBARTA, in the conversation.
For Russell, a critic of THE Bus in the past, it was quite a turnaround.
"I've always felt that THE Bus was premature because of the population demographics and the sparse population centers; it doesn't lend itself to a substantial fixed-route transit system," said Russell, who is Hernando County's representative on the TBARTA board.
But then he realized the far-reaching implications: not only lost funding for THE Bus, but higher costs because the county would have to increase the more expensive door-to-door transportation service for the elderly and disabled.
"It could cost us a substantial amount both now and into the future in the way of roads and transit," he said.
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Critics complain that the THE Bus should be scrapped because every bus they see only has a few people riding it.
But Russell said that while the current system is clearly not working, not having the service at all would be worse.
Just a few years ago, when Russell was in Tallahassee as a member of the state House, he recalls that about 10 to 12 percent of transportation dollars went to transit. Now that's more like 18 to 22 percent, showing the switch in philosophy.
"They're gravitating more to transit and less to asphalt," Russell said.
Hernando County shouldn't lose out on its opportunity to take advantage of those funds, he said.
Doing away with THE Bus would also send more of the county's most vulnerable residents — those with financial and health-related challenges — to the more expensive door-to-door service.
In other conversations with the County Commission, county officials have also pointed out that without mass transit as part of the county's social service offerings, Hernando will lose out on grant funding for a variety of projects and programs.
Those are all good reasons to keep THE Bus, though not in the format that hasn't been working, Russell said.
"It is incumbent upon us to make the system as efficient, productive and viable as it can possibly be," Russell said. "TBARTA will be invaluable in helping us make the system more efficient."
Hernando County's transit challenge is a familiar one to Bob Clifford, TBARTA's executive director.
Throughout the authority's seven-county area and across the nation, transit systems are being squeezed by the economy, and those who use them are clamoring for more services at a time when there are fewer dollars to operate systems, Clifford said.
While some hinted that TBARTA could save THE Bus by taking it over, Clifford said that is not the role he sees for the authority in Hernando County.
"It's not really appropriate for a regional transportation authority to say where on Cobb Road you should put a bus stop," he said. But TBARTA can help figure out "how to use the existing resources better."
Those conversations with Hernando officials, as well as officials in surrounding counties, are ongoing.
Specifically, officials are discussing how to morph the existing fixed-route system to be more flexible and provide some door-to-door service near the fixed routes in order to take pressure off the more expensive door-to-door service.
Clifford said increasing efficiency also means asking whether the northern counties in the region each need their own calling center and maintenance yard. Combining those functions could generate significant savings.
In addition, coordinating routes could someday move Hernando County bus riders north into Citrus County or south into Pasco, and those discussions continue as part of the overall plan.
For that reason alone, "it's very important to keep all the links" in the transportation master plan, Clifford said. "Hernando County is just a piece of the puzzle, but it's a very important piece."
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Hernando County's contract with Mid-Florida Community Services, which operates the community's mass transit system, was set to expire Sept. 30. A few days before that, the County Commission approved a six-month extension to prepare a new request for proposals for an operator.
It will be the winner of that contract, which will likely be for five or 5 1/2 years, with whom county officials will discuss what the next incarnation of THE Bus will look like, according to county planning director Ron Pianta.
"Our thought is to operate the current system and work with that operator to come up with service options," Pianta said.
He said he was encouraged by the interest shown by TBARTA's Clifford.
"Obviously he wants to work with us to improve the system," Pianta said. "Clearly they want us to be successful. Clearly they want us to move forward, look at different options and market ourselves better."
Clifford said he was confident that those things will happen. But he also acknowledged the challenges. Many of the current critics want more service at a time when there are not necessarily more resources to provide the service.
And then there are those who don't see the point of a regional transportation system at all.
Some critics look at TBARTA's overall transportation plan for the region, which includes buses and rail, and don't see a lot of immediate benefits for Hernando County.
Clifford said that when people tell him that he is planning decades in advance for projects that the current generation will never live to see completed, he just tells them, "Yes, but we still have to do it."
The questions people raise about whether we need the rail and the intercounty connections and the other improvements on the drawing board are just like questions asked in the 1950s about the need for the interstate highway system, he said.
"We're just planting the seed for that tree to grow and provide shade," he said. "Not for us, but for our children and their children."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.