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Guest column| Harry E. Hackney

Public transportation can work— just look north

Back in the 1940s, I lived in a metropolitan area of 15,000 people. We were served by a railroad with passenger steam trains that stopped on schedules as frequently as 15 minutes, offering service to large cities such as Pittsburgh and Baltimore. To get to the train depot, we had an electric trolley system that ran every half-hour from 6 a.m. until midnight. It collected people from an area of hundreds of square miles and delivered them to the train station.

We also had a city bus service that made a loop thru the town and ran from 6 a.m. until midnight every day of the week. It returned to any given spot every hour. It delivered people to the Union Station from all over town.

We had Greyhound bus service that stopped four times a day in front of the train depot, providing transportation east to Baltimore and west to Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the whole country. We had local bus systems that radiated out to smaller towns and brought shoppers to the depot. Remember, this town was 10,000 people with 5,000 living close by. Then the automobile arrived.

Before World War II, few families had a car. They came to town for movies, shopping, medical care and just to get out of the house, and many came by bus or trolley. When the war was over, the GIs flooded into town with money in their pockets. When America's automakers got production up to speed, the streets of this small town were clogged with cars. One thing this burg did not have was parking.

Soon the shoppers could drive to a place that had free parking and lots of it. This same thing happened all over America, and downtown shopping died and its offspring moved to the suburban malls. Small towns turned into storefront churches and secondhand stores. My little town is nearly dead now. A proud old town, which rivaled Pittsburgh in the mid 1800s, is slowly rotting away, and building by building, the wreckers are restoring the original landscape.

Fixing THE Bus

In Spring Hill, THE Bus has a population base of more than 100,000 people to serve, and it is not able to provide service that can compare to that little town of 15,000. People do not ride THE Bus because it does not serve the needs of 99,000 of them. It has value to 1,000 people.

It reminds me of the advent of television. Nobody had a TV set, so the broadcasters didn't broadcast much. There was nobody to see it, so there was no funding for a service that few used. There was no advertising revenue to create shows that people would like to view if they had a TV set. Who wanted to buy a TV set? There was nothing on TV. They used to stand in front of the appliance store for 15 minutes, craning to watch the test pattern on the display model.

THE Bus (et al) is like that, too. Nobody rides it because it serves the needs of such a limited base. They cannot expand the hours and coverage because nobody rides THE Bus. Even with 80 percent or more subsidy it can't continue that losing venture.

So, what is the answer? Can we force anyone to ride THE Bus? Take away driver's licenses? Raise the price of gasoline higher?

Or could we make THE Bus more useful? Why did that little hick town in southwestern Pennsylvania support all that transportation infrastructure, and major metropolitan areas cannot operate out of the fare box today?

If Hernando County wants public transportation (and there are many who cannot do without it), it must first provide hours and routes that will capture more users from the 100,000-person base in Spring Hill. It needs to operate later into the evening to serve shoppers and diners. Both the Red Line and the Blue Line operate over much the same routes, leaving vast areas that are far off the path. Bus stops have been created that further separate riders from the fare box. The routes need to be better arranged to tap a larger rider base.

Spring Hill needs a rapid rail system connecting the cities to the south and perhaps terminating at Tampa International Airport, with stops at bus transfer points along the way.

Take a look at the RTA in Cleveland. Rapid trains run right out of the airport. You can board without ever going outdoors and you step out in downtown Cleveland, or continue into the eastern suburbs, with Rapid stations all along the route that connect to bus lines covering most of the metro area.

That's not new. It was in full operation in the early 1960s. Cleveland lost its industrial base and the fare box doesn't pay for it now. Send some of these experts up to Cleveland and have them take a ride on the Rapid Transit right out of the airport. Call it an education expense. They can visit the Rock and Roll Museum without ever getting a snowflake on them.

Harry E. Hackney lives in Spring Hill. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

Public transportation can work— just look north 03/24/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2008 2:00pm]
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