BROOKSVILLE - New ridership numbers for THE Bus show a record number of people are using Hernando County's mass transit system.
From 2012 to 2013, there was an almost 20 percent increase in passenger trips: from 73,022 to 87,535. The system set a record for highest daily ridership on Feb. 4, when nearly 500 daily trips were provided.
Transportation Planning Coordinator Dennis Dix attributes the rise to system improvements that include reducing the headway from 120 minutes to 75 minutes, tweaking bus route changes and adding hours to make it more convenient. Headway is the time a patron must wait between pickups at bus stops.
Dix said more people are using mass transit because of the high cost of operating a vehicle and gasoline prices nearing $4 per gallon.
"People are making other choices for how they get along," Dix said.
County Transportation Planner Steve Diez said mass transit doesn't carry the stigma it once did among those who associated riding the bus with low-income people.
Younger generations, which make up the largest percentage of riders locally and nationally, are more apt to embrace alternate forms of transportation, Diez said.
And, Dix added: "You can text and ride."
David Philipsen, of Weeki Wachee, said he has encountered some of the stereotyping from people who believe the bus should be grounded.
"I've been told by people that I don't need a bus and I tell them they are wrong," he said. "I think as a community, we need a transportation system."
The new numbers, he said, support that claim.
As a disabled man suffering from mild cerebral palsy, Philipsen said he relies on public transportation to get around Hernando County.
Diez and Dix said the new data is a welcome change from the days when THE Bus was considered such a drain on the budget that county commissioners had considered stopping the service.
"We're emerging from the dark days," Diez said.
County Commissioner Diane Rowden said she always has supported the bus service, even when it had low ridership.
"When you can see your number increase by 20 percent, that's incredible," she said.
Rowden said there is work to be done, especially in providing a transit route to service people who work at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.
Discussions also have to move forward, she said, between Hernando and Pasco county transit officials about adding a route from Pasco-Hernando State College on U.S. 19 south into Pasco.
"I'm really excited with the fact that we haven't fallen to some of the naysayers who wanted to get rid of THE Bus," Rowden said. "They said (it) is a waste of money. No, it's not. It's benefiting our community."
Mass transit ridership is increasing regionally and nationwide. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority posted record numbers in February.
McDonald Transit Associates, the county's transit operator, recently gave out two awards for THE Bus, citing the increased usage and a first-place award for safety among the systems it operates.
There were no fixed-route accidents during 2013, according to McDonald Transit.
Meanwhile, county commissioners will discuss hiring Ontario-based Creative Outdoor Advertising to provide benches and shelters at all or most of Hernando County's bus stops. The company, with a branch office in Jupiter, on the state's East Coast, was the only one that submitted a bid.
Assistant County Administrator Russ Wetherington said he will recommend the company because it will handle the entire project from start to finish, including bench and shelter installation, maintenance and advertising. It would make it easier dealing with one company rather than separate businesses, Wetherington said.
Philipsen said he has to stand for long periods at bus stops because there are no benches for him to sit down. Unlike other counties, such as Pasco, Hernando does not offer seats. Citrus County recently approved a bench program.
Philipsen is urging people to attend Tuesday's meeting and to encourage the board to move ahead with the benches and shelters.
County Commissioner Nick Nicholson, who first broached the idea of benches, said recently he is pleased to see the project moving forward.