“We went there to ask them, what does quality transportation mean to you,” said Tom Phillips, executive director of Polk Transit, the county agency that works to create public transportation options. “We heard about what their issues were, and what people wanted. We want to create a situation where we understand where people are. This is about us listening to what they need.”
It will also be, Phillips said, part of an ongoing effort to improve public transportation options throughout Polk County.
“What we’re doing,” he said, “is we have branded a marketing and community outreach effort called My Ride.” It’s part of Polk Transit’s vision and plan for future transit services, looking at not only how people get around today, but how they will cab from point A to point B in the future.
The agency plans to collect the data from these public meetings, and then make recommendations to Polk County commissioners on June 13, during a public meeting in Lakeland.
“We will be presenting an 85 percent complete project proposal for Polk County service areas,” Phillips said.
But it will not come without an added price tag, Phillips acknowledged.
“We need more funding,” he said.
As Central Florida struggles to come out of the lingering impact of the national recession and the collapse of the housing market, Phillips said it’s clear more and more families and individuals are relying on public transportation. With people unemployed or underemployed, and facing gas prices hovering near $3.70 a gallon, a growing number of area residents simply can’t afford a car to get around, he said.
“The definition of who is transit-dependent has changed,” Phillips said. “With the double-digit unemployment rate and gas above $3.70, absolutely those trends have changed. I have seen, for the first time, that many of our (bus) routes are full. This is happening across the United States. We’re trying to come up with a plan to meet those needs.”
But it won’t be easy. In November 2010, Polk County commissioners asked county residents to approve a ballot referendum to raise the sales tax to pay for improved public transit services. But in the midst of a recession, it lost at the polls, 60 percent to 40 percent. Since then, Polk Transit has been forced to scale back its services.
“We had to cut the amount of routes we had prior to the election,” said Paul A. Simmons III, director of Polk County Transit Services Division. “A lot of that was consolidation of the routes.”
“We did reduce our services, although we’ve had grant opportunities to bring some of those routes back,” Phillips said. “We seek as many grant opportunities as we can. We are being excellent stewards of transportation dollars.”
That hasn’t stopped the agency from trying to learn more about what local residents – including the resident s of the Polk County side of Poinciana – need in terms of public transportation options. The needs, Phillips said, keep getting bigger.
“We’re trying to come up with a transit solution for what is essentially a small state,” he said. “Polk County is larger than the state of Rhode Island. We have a daunting task ahead of us.”
The 31,000 residents living on the Polk County side of Poinciana now have two pick up bus routes, the 601 and 603, but certainly could use more, said Keith Laytham, president of the local civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change. The local pick up lines, Laytham said, were started in 2009 by former Polk County commissioner Jean Reed. Even when the 2010 ballot referendum failed countywide, “It passed in Poinciana,” Laytham said. “Poinciana has different needs than the rest of Polk County. It hasn’t progressed as quickly as we’d like.”
Nick Murdock, chairman of the Poinciana Economic Development Alliance, agreed, saying his non-profit agency is working to improve the quality of life in Poinciana, and providing more public transportation options is a key to that.
“We do have some immediate needs, and I know there is no funding, so we have to be creative to find a solution,” Murdock said. “We need at least another 601 and 603 to tie in down there, so we have more connectors available. That’s our immediate need. We need to figure out a way to make that happen as quickly as possible.”
Laytham said he reached out to Polk Transit last month, inviting them to come to Poinciana-Polk County to hear what residents had to say.
“I went to Polk County and said ‘We need to have one of these listening sessions in Poinciana,’ “ Laytham said.
The challenge, though, was that “15 people showed up,” Phillips said. “Transit doesn’t bring people out in masses.”
In the meantime, Polk County funds the pickup route 603, operated by Lynx, said Dave Walters, communications specialist for the Polk County Communications Division.
“The pickup line 603 has provided 13,295 passenger trips to the residents of Poinciana in the last 12 months,” Walters said.
The route is funded through a Job Access Reverse Commute grant from the Federal Transit Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation in the amount of $343,806, with an in-kind match from Polk County of $343,806.
“The future of public transportation in the Poinciana area includes a new fixed-route service that will connect the residents of Poinciana with Haines City via State Road 580,” Walters said.
That route is expected to start in September, allowing residents of Poinciana to connect to the Winter Haven Area Transit Route 15, providing access to routes in that city and Bartow, Lakeland and Lake Wales.
That service will be paid for by a FTA grant of $333,810, with a matching amount from Polk County commissioners.
“We meet on a weekly basis to talk about consolidation efforts,” Phillips said. “When you talk about doing more with less, we want to be sure that fare hikes are one of the last things we look at.”
Polk Transit is also working with Osceola County to provide continued service throughout Poinciana, where the 10 villages cut across both counties.
“It’s providing a seamless service so you can’t tell what’s being funded by Polk and what’s being funded by Osceola,” he said.
“Everybody looks at the county lines and they come to the assumption that Polk pays for this and Osceola pays for that, but that’s not the case,” Simmons said. “That’s why we look at Poinciana as a whole.”