BARTOW – When Tom Phillips lived in Chicago, he had plenty of options for getting around the city without having to rely on a car to get him there.
“If you look at the Chicago metro region, how do you get people from point A to point B?” Phillips asked. In the Windy City, it could start with Metra, the light rail system, which connects passengers to the bus system run by the Chicago Transit Authority.
If someone lived in the suburbs of Chicago, they had the option of using PACE, the suburban bus system covering the six surrounding counties.
“The suburban bus service runs through the suburbs, then you can get on the rail and ride it into downtown Chicago,” Phillips said. “There may also be walking options there, as well as bicycle options. Good transit is looking at the mobility of residents. Good public transportation is about doing that.”
Last year, Phillips relocated to Polk County, after accepting the position of executive director of Polk Transit, the agency that works to provide public transportation options for county residents.
Since Florida remains a state where the automobile is king, an elaborate public transit system like the one in Chicago probably seems like a tall order here. But Phillips isn’t convinced of that. He believes there are ways to provide Polk County residents with more public transportation options, and that task just got a big boost last year, he said, with the final approval from Gov. Rick Scott of SunRail, the 61-mile long light rail system now being constructed. It would run from Debary in Volusia County into downtown Orlando, then continue on to a final stop in Poinciana.
Although part of Poinciana is in Polk County, the SunRail station would be on the Osceola County side of the community, right off Poinciana Boulevard near the intersection of Orange Blossom Trail. SunRail would run through four counties – Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola – but not Polk.
That, Phillips said, won’t matter, because what SunRail offers county residents, he said, is two things: “options and possibilities.”
For one thing, it will enable transit agencies like his, Phillips said, to find ways to link other modes of public transportation – whether it’s bus service, vans, taxis or shuttles – to SunRail.
“We call it multi-model,” he said. “We have to take a multi-regional look at everything. A good, roboust public transportation service is what people will be looking for.”
Polk County isn’t waiting for SunRail to get built before they start investing in those options, said Paul A. Simmons III, director of the Polk County Transit Services Division.
Simmons noted that Polk County now has a bus route, the 601, that goes into Poinciana. It’s not a fixed route, but one where residents can call and asked to be picked up and transported to another location.
“We have plans in place to supplement the Poinciana service, from Poinciana to Haines City,” Simmons said. “We secured the grant funds to start that service this year. That bus route would meet up with (bus) Route 15, and take that to a transfer to Winter Haven and Bartow.”
In addition, Polk County Transit Services is also working with the North Ridge Community Redevelopment Agency to get new bus routes from Haines City to U.S. 192 in Four Corners.
“It would be servicing Highway 27,” Simmons said, adding that the funding would come from grants provided to Polk County through the Federal Transit Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that provides financial and technical assistance to local public transit systems. The federal government, through FTA, provides the financial assistance to develop new transit systems and improve, maintain, and operate existing systems. The FTA oversees grants to state and local transit providers, primarily through ten regional offices.
“We have FTA grants for both of these routes, and both will be the first connection to more public transportation,” Simmons said. “If people are going to Disney World, Kissimmee, where ever Lynx goes to, if you’re in Polk County, you can get there, too.”
This is about more than providing residents with increased transportation options, Simmons said. Having these new bus links to employers like Walt Disney World will open up more job opportunities for county residents, particularly in Northeast Polk County.
“It sure will,” he said.
Phillips agreed, saying “Polk County is the second most populous county for Disney employees, even more so than Orange County.”
SunRail, Simmons added, provides another clear option, since Polk Transit can find routes to link to the rail station, particularly the stations in Osceola County that will stop at Celebration and Poinciana.
“Even though SunRail doesn’t come into Polk County, there will be a demand for people to get on that route,” Simmons said.
Phillips said a lot of the planning went into this long before SunRail got approved.
“It’s not what we’re building our plans around,” he said of SunRail. “It’s a component of it.”
Nick Murdock, the chairman of the Poinciana Economic Development Alliance, a non-profit group working to boost economic development in the community, agreed that SunRail presents positive options for both the Osceola and Polk county sides of the community.
“I think SunRail is going to be very positive,” he said. “The key again is the bus transportation. We need to make sure we have a good connection all the way down into Polk County to get to SunRail. My objective is to actually have a bus hub of some kind in Poinciana-Polk County, and have an opportunity for the people down there to connect up to the SunRail station.”
The two new proposed bus routes, he said, will also improve the quality of life in Northeast Polk County.
“I think the connection to Haines City, which will be able to connect to Bartow, and the new route to (U.S.) 192, is also very positive for us,” Murdock said. “I think it’s a great plan, and I’m all for it.”