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The interest is there, but mass transit is not

Harold Bozarth is a driver, not a rider.

Bozarth, 70, lives in the Old Millpond Village subdivision off Rowan Road in unincorporated New Port Richey. He moved there six years ago from Lafayette, Ind., after a career as an electrical engineer.

He never used a rail system to commute, and he's ridden the Pasco County Public Transportation System exactly twice — to get to doctor appointments.

"But I can see what has to happen," said Bozarth, glancing at poster boards showing Pasco, Hernando and five other counties dissected by lines showing potential rail and bus routes.

What has to happen is a public commitment to mass transit. So last week, Bozarth drove 30 miles across State Road 54 to Zephyrhills to hear more about it at Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority workshop.

Bozarth is practical in his desires. He figures he won't be driving in another 5 to 10 years. Mass transit is the solution.

Jim Evans of Weeki Wachee went to a similar gathering two days later in Hernando. His needs are more immediate. He leaves his house every workday at 5 in the morning and drives south on U.S. 19 to his maintenance job with the Pinellas School Board in Largo. He favors an elevated light rail system to run above U.S. 19.

"Whatever they do, it has to run 24 hours a day. The buses (in Pinellas) now start at 6 a.m. How does that help someone like me?"

Vic and Mary Ann Dougherty used to ride the train from their Danbury, Conn., home 65 miles to Manhattan for monthly excursions to the theater, museums and for other outings. They retired to Spring Hill a dozen years ago and now drive to Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Florida Aquarium, International Plaza or the beaches three or four times a month.

They advocate a Brooksville-to-Tampa line, as do many people in Hernando. Specifically, Hernando residents told TBARTA they want a route to Tampa International Airport without fighting the southbound congestion on the Veterans Expressway in Hillsborough County.

State Rep. Will Weatherford hopes one of the initial lines takes Wesley Chapel residents through New Tampa and into downtown with a stop at the University of South Florida and other prime locations.

There are lots of ideas and lots of desires. There is, however, not a lot of money. TBARTA doesn't have a permanent funding source. A working mass transit system among the seven counties is two decades away, suggested former state representative and current Hernando Commissioner David Russell, who sits on the TBARTA board.

So we wait in traffic. The federal interstate system accounts for 3 percent of total public lane miles in Florida but carries 30 percent of the traffic, according to TBARTA's Web site. It helps explain why a recent poll found transportation as the No. 1 concern in Pasco. It also helps explain why Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio is trying to jump-start a rail system for her city in advance of TBARTA's finished plan.

But trains, express buses and other strategies are only part of the components of a robust regional transportation network. It also requires connections from each individual county to, say, get people from the western edge of Hernando and Pasco counties to rail stations in the central portions of each locale.

Unfortunately, mass transit frequently becomes an afterthought at the local level when governments balance their budgets. THE Bus in Hernando County is identified by government critics as the epitome of out-of-control spending. Pasco County's Public Transportation System is delaying, for a second consecutive year, plans to add service to Moon Lake. Officials quickly retreated from an earlier proposal to cut service along U.S. 19.

"It's always baffled me,'' said Vic Dougherty, "why (mass transit) is the only public service that's expected to pay for itself.''

Indeed.

Back in Zephyrhills, a TBARTA staff member quickly answered an inquiry about a bus service along the long-planned, but still not permitted, Ridge Road Extension. The route is still on the boards.

That was easy, she said. Ask a tough question.

How are you going to pay for all this?

She didn't have an answer.

There is no easy answer to that one without a commitment for a public investment extending beyond parochial borders.

Reach C.T. Bowen at bowen@sptimes.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6239.

The interest is there, but mass transit is not 08/02/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 2, 2008 11:29am]
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