For the second consecutive year, Pasco officials are considering a plan to help balance their budget on the backs of people who can least afford it. The county is proposing to cut the number of buses along U.S. 19, the most popular routes on the Pasco County Public Transportation system. The routes, with connections, run from the intersection of Little Road in Hudson to the Pinellas County line and account for 382,000 passenger rides.
The county proposes to eliminate buses on Saturdays and holidays and an entire route in Zephyrhills. It also plans to reduce service on U.S. 19 by delaying the frequency of the 30-minute routes to 45 minutes. All told, the cuts will save $500,000 of county funding or about half the operating costs.
A year ago, county administrators scrubbed a similar, but less severe cost-cutting idea nearly immediately and removed the plan from the proposed county budget before releasing it to commissioners. Not so this year. Tuesday, the measure was the topic of a public hearing, a federally mandated step before commissioners vote on cutting the service Oct. 1.
A dozen people spoke up to object, mostly against eliminating Saturday service, which only began two years ago. Collectively, the buses provided 127,000 Saturday rides in the last fiscal year. The riders spoke of needing mass transit to get to work on weekends, to make scheduled visitation with their children, and to get out of their homes for shopping and leisure.
"If you take away Saturdays, you lock me in my home,'' said Carol Harse of New Port Richey, speaking from a wheelchair.
The nonprofit AFIRE uses the bus system to help teach independence to developmentally disabled adults, and representatives said the added time between stops could kill the time-constrained program.
The cost savings are counterproductive considering the long-term improvements envisioned for the system. West Pasco is a densely populated but less affluent area of the county, and Pasco's 10-year transit plan, adopted just a year ago by commissioners, calls for running buses more frequently and later into the evening; and adding Sunday service and an express bus on U.S. 19.
The population that relies on mass transit in Pasco has few transportation alternatives. Seventy-five percent of the riders do not drive or do not have an automobile available to them, the county's own passenger surveys found. More than half the riders use the bus to get to work or school and nearly 40 percent use it to shop, run errands or go to a medical office.
This is not a luxury. Reliable bus service is imperative for people of modest means. Commissioners, who plan to spread $11 million from a property tax increase to soften $37 million in budget cuts, should make sure they spend an equitable share of that kitty maintaining mass transit.