The first publicly advocated budget cut from the Hernando County Commission dais should be at the bottom of the list. Commissioner Jim Adkins this week suggested it was time to park THE Bus, contending the county cannot afford its mass transit system.
His counterpart, Commission Chairman David Russell, wisely wants to put the brakes on Adkins' ill-conceived motion.
Against the backdrop of looming budget cuts — a $3.1 million shortfall before the end of the current fiscal year and at least $2.1 million more after Oct. 1. — Adkins retreated from his 2008 campaign promise to try to expand the transit service before abandoning it. Here is what he said in a written response to the Times about THE Bus during the campaign:
''If the routes were expanded into communities like Cloverleaf, Brookridge, High Point, Timber Pines and Wellington to name a few it would be easier for potential riders to use the service, this has not been tried and should be before the program is stopped altogether. The hours of operation and the routes are not user friendly, workers need to get to their jobs, and elderly users need not be dropped off blocks from their desired destination.''
Here is what he said Tuesday:
"I just want to know how to take the keys out of that bus.''
So much for trying to make the system user-friendly in an effort to increase ridership.
A more important consideration than a politically expedient budget cut (THE Bus is a frequent target of criticism from nonriders lamenting the cost local government), Adkins and the rest of the commission must consider the long-term ramifications of isolating Hernando from a planned regional transportation network. The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, TBARTA, has spent the past year devising a system intended to connect Citrus and Hernando counties to the urban centers in Tampa and St. Petersburg via express bus routes, park-and-ride lots and a rail system. A key component of such a system is the ability of Hernando County to shuttle its riders to and from the hubs. Abandoning mass transit in Hernando would be shortsighted and prove to be an expensive decision should the county try to resurrect it later without the heavy federal subsidies to cover capital costs.
That is the message from Russell, a member of TBARTA's board, who, by coincidence, met with the agency's executive director, County Administrator David Hamilton, and county planners a day after Adkins' advocacy for eliminating the service.
More practical would be an attempt to improve the system via more frequent runs during early-morning and late-afternoon commute times coupled with a greater midday reliance on the federally required door-to-door service for the disabled and financially needy.
A more substantial buy-in from the business community would be welcome as would a discussion on some other ideas to lower the county's per-passenger subsidy. A recent increase in fares brought a dip in ridership that also coincided with a rapid lowering of gasoline costs for motorists.
As an alternative, Russell said the county should explore a transit surcharge on new subdivisions to offset THE Bus operational costs as a way to meet state-mandated concurrency standards.
"We need to make the system viable and if we spend time on that and spend less time talking about pulling the plug, we'll be better off,'' Russell said.
His commitment is welcome. We trust the rest of the commission will share it. Even Adkins. His flip-flop is disconcerting, but he should think of THE Bus as a smart and necessary investment in an improved Hernando County, not as a wasteful extravagance.