After four years of budget cuts, Hernando commissioners have a rare opportunity for a low-cost expansion of a government service that will improve the quality of life for students, the disabled, seniors and working-class residents.
Those individuals comprise much of the ridership for public buses and they stand to benefit if the county commission wisely blesses planned changes to their own much-maligned mass transit system — THE Bus.
Tuesday, the commission will consider route changes proposed by their transit operator, McDonald Transit Associates, to increase the frequency of buses on existing routes, serve the new Pasco-Hernando Community College in Spring Hill, provide a direct link between Brooksville and Spring Hill without a required transfer and expand service in Brooksville along the State Road 50 bypass west of U.S. 41. If approved, the new routes are projected to increase ridership by as much as 55 percent annually to 110,000. The changes also come at an opportune time given the escalating cost of gasoline.
The price to the county for the bus improvements is just $11,400 — which already is included in the budget — for five months of the fiscal year. The local money will come from the transportation trust fund financed with property and gasoline taxes. The majority of the costs are covered by federal and state grants.
It's a bargain to Hernando. Those doubting the need —including an announced candidate for county commission —should consider the public comments from riders who do make use of the system.
David Philipsen described himself as a 23-year-old disabled man who uses the bus five days a week because he has no other transportation. The two-hour headway on the routes "does not do any real justice to the people of Hernando County.'' Melinda Bullough of Spring Hill is a former rider who took the bus to her job in Brooksville. She gave up when the county cut service and her work shift didn't end until 90 minutes after the last bus left for the day. "Hernando County is so very much behind in providing adequate public transportation,'' she wrote.
Commissioners should pay no heed to the short-sighted rhetoric that the bus service needs to be self sustaining. Instead, they should consider mass transit as an investment in the long-range future of Hernando County as an employment center and as a quality place to live.
A commission with vision will recognize both the immediate benefits to current constituents and the long-term advantages of building THE Bus ridership through incremental improvements that someday should include weekend service, routes to more employment centers and connections to transit in neighboring counties.