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Let the wheels start turning

After planning for years and securing federal and state funding, the county unveils the Hernando Express, its first transportation system.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Officials show off a bus for the Hernando Express at a dedication ceremony in Brooksville.

By WILL VAN SANT
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002


Monday is B-Day.

"B" for bus, that is.

After years of demographic study, route design, marketing, funding development and political challenges, four diesel-powered Bluebird buses will hit Hernando County roads Monday.

The red, white and blue vehicles are the workhorses of the county's first public transportation system. They make their introduction on transit Routes 1 and 2, which operate in Spring Hill. Additional buses will roll out Nov. 4 to serve Route 3, the Brooksville loop.

The system is meant to help students, people who are unable to drive because of disabilities or economic constraints, and, especially, the county's large senior population conveniently get from place to place.

And for the first month of operation, people can ride for free.

"Public transportation is one of those items that is a hallmark of a quality community," said County Commission Chairwoman Nancy Robinson, a spirited supporter of the project. "It's going to give freedom to people."

The Hernando Express, as the project is billed -- or THE Bus, for short -- has been in development for four years under the guidance of the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization. While finding broad support among elected officials now, it has faced criticism in the past from county commissioners who have since been voted out of office.

Still, concerns about THE Bus' viability linger in the community. Among the critics is civic activist Rose Rocco, who is challenging Robinson in the upcoming Nov. 5 election.

"We have got so many other issues on the table that require funding," Rocco said. "Is it really going to serve the needs of the community, or is it going to be an additional burden on them without giving them the service they need?"

Rocco would have preferred to see a business brought to the county to provide transportation alternatives. But advocates for THE Bus point out that public transportation projects are not revenue sources. Operating costs are just too high to make them attractive to private business.

"A lot of people believe that public transit is something that should pay for itself," said county planner Dennis Dix, who has directed the bus project. "I know of two transit systems in the United States that are paying for themselves, and they are commuter rails up in the Northeast corridors. They are not even bus systems."

Federal Transit Administration grants of $730,000 covered the entire capital cost of the project. The federal government will also pay about $290,000 a year to cover operating costs; the state will pay an additional $145,000. Hernando County will provide $145,000 a year for operating costs. Fare revenues are expected to be about $30,000 the first year, and that money will go toward the county's contribution.

To secure the federal funding, which, like the state money, is derived from gasoline taxes, the county had to make a four-year commitment to the program. They are one year into that commitment. Three years from now the county will evaluate the transit system and decide whether to continue, Dix said.

Success or failure will largely depend on how well THE Bus performs in relation to an existing service for the transportation disadvantaged. That service, Paratransit, provided by the nonprofit agency Trans-Hernando, is underfunded, and demand is three times what is currently provided, according to Dix.

Under a worst-case scenario, he said, should THE Bus attract few riders, officials will have to consider whether it would be more cost effective to pay 100 percent of the cost for expanding the Paratransit system to meet demand. If the cost of expansion were less than the $145,000 the county is contributing to THE Bus, the new transit system could be abandoned.

Dix does not think that will happen.

It is projected that in the first year of operation, riders will make 43,900 trips on the buses. That figure is expected to rise to 63,600 trips three years from now. If those ridership goals are met, THE Bus will likely survive.

An important element of the system is the planned integration of the existing Paratransit service with THE Bus, a process expected to take several months. Those not living near the three routes will be able to call 24 hours in advance and make reservations to be picked up and dropped off by Paratransit at THE Bus' stop nearest them.

One key to making a new transit system a success, according to Michael Carroll, who manages Pasco County Public Transit, is to focus on service while knowing what your limitations are.

Ridership on the Pasco bus system has leapt from 158,000 trips in 2001, its first year of operation, to an estimated 420,000 trips this year, Carroll said. One thing he has learned and passed on to Hernando County planners, he said, is that you cannot please everybody.

"A lot of people want you to travel directly down their street," he said. "And that's just not feasible."

The secret, Carroll said, is to focus on developing ridership in a specific area, marketing fiercely and providing consistent, timely service from the start.

"It's those little things," he said. "The first impression is the lasting impression for most people."

The Hernando system's three routes meet at the Beall's Department Store parking lot at Mariner Boulevard and State Road 50 in Spring Hill. The location is THE Bus' primary transfer facility.

Folks shopping in the area one afternoon last week had a range of opinions about the new service. Some said they were committed to their cars; others that they did not want to ride on a bus with strangers. Overwhelmingly, however, people were enthusiastic about the project.

Flo Harsanyi, 33, has two small babies to care for. Lugging them along on shopping trips can prove a headache. But with THE Bus, she now has another option -- sending her older daughter out on chores.

"Or she could stay home with the babies and I could go out," Harsanyi said. "And sometimes you just don't feel like driving. It's nice to have another alternative."

Also, many elderly people in the area are without family to drive them; still others who are driving would prefer not to but get behind the wheel because they see no option, Harsanyi said.

"I think it's a great idea," said Carole Pizzo, 65. "My mother does not drive, and she will be able to get around without asking for a ride from somebody."

Pizzo's mother, 90-year-old Anna E. Stratton, said it was about time. THE Bus, she said, may be the best way for her to make two doctor appointments she has in November.

"They should have had this a long time ago," Stratton said.

According to Dix, about one-third of county residents do not own a vehicle or are unable or too young to drive. All are potential riders on the new bus system.

Though these people are scattered throughout the county, study of demographic factors such as income, age and population density led planners to choose the three routes they did.

While increasing the number of operating hours and expanding to weekend service are in the near future, Dix said, adding routes to the service is a longer-term project but one that will almost certainly be required as the county grows.

"Once we are running and we hear what demand is out there, that's going to help us determine . . . where the next route is going to be," Dix said.

-- Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansant@sptimes.com .

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