After consecutive years of benign neglect, Hernando County correctly wants to upgrade its investment in mass transit. The county's Metropolitan Planning Organization — county commissioners and member of the Brooksville City Council — now wants to alter routes for THE Bus to make it more user friendly.
Proposed changes include a direct link between Brooksville and Spring Hill without a required transfer, a bus to Pasco-Hernando Community College's campus in Spring Hill and expanded service in Brooksville along the State Road 50 Bypass. Most importantly, buses will run every 75 minutes rather than the current two hours.
It's a substantial improvement and reverses the penny-pinching exhibited toward the bus system over the past three years in which the county twice cut service, raised fares and refused federal grant money for new vehicles because commissioners didn't want to commit matching dollars.
The proposed improvements will cost the county a paltry $22,600 to be taken from its transportation trust fund. No fare increase is planned, though long-term financial questions remain including paying for replacement buses and the solvency of the trust fund — a pool of money from property and gasoline taxes, which the county previously said would be exhausted in 2015. Regardless, the county shouldn't waiver from its commitment to mass transit.
The route suggestions also come six months after the county turned operation over to McDonald Transit Associates with a plea to remedy the puny ridership that followed a past decision to run the buses every two hours. Acknowledging that the limited service was a hindrance to growing ridership is a positive step for commissioners, some of whom have previously advocated eliminating the service entirely.
Ending the service would have been a grave mistake. While the region's long-range transit map includes express buses running on State Road 50, U.S. 41 and the Suncoast Parkway and long-distance rail between Brooksville and Tampa, the key to successfully moving people about remains the local routes to deliver people to and from transit hubs.
In the more immediate future, the county is wise to try to better serve the students at the PHCC campus in Spring Hill — a population that can include recent high school graduates and others who may not have access to reliable transportation.
It also is a logical way to grow ridership simultaneously with student enrollment growth on the new campus. In Pasco, for instance, projections call for that county's bus ridership to grow by 3,000 annually on the route delivering students to the community college's east Pasco campus just outside Dade City. The Spring Hill campus currently has 2,046 students, a nearly 40 percent increase from a year ago.
Overall, the transit operators predict the new routes could boost ridership by as much as 55 percent to 110,000 annually. Though the days of standing-room only crowds on the buses aren't coming anytime soon, county transportation planners are smart to begin the incremental improvements. Turning THE Bus from a subject of public scorn to a valued community asset is a worthwhile effort.