POINCIANA – With gas prices still high, nearly matching the region’s unemployment rate, more Central Floridians are viewing their car as a luxury and turning to public transportation as a less expensive option – if they can find a bus to take them where they need to go.
But with local counties still struggling to climb out of the grip of the national recession and the collapse of the housing market, budgets are extremely tight and there’s little to no money available for increased public transit option.
“There are a lot of residents here who have to take the bus to get places,” said Annette Brown Best, a community activist in Poinciana. ”So I’ve been working with Lynx on that.”
So the question remains: how do you accomplish more – with less?
Keith Laytham, the president of Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, a civic group working to improve the community, said more local residents need public transportation than ever, but are having a hard time finding convenient and readily available options.
Laytham lives in the Solivita development on the Polk County side of Poinciana, which has 31,000 residents – and not all of them, he added, can still afford to own a car, insure it, and then fill up the gas tank to drive it around.
But the situation wasn’t helped in November 2010, he said, when Polk County residents were asked to approve a ballot referendum to raise the sales tax to finance increased transportation access across the county, including in Poinciana and Northeast Polk County.
‘’It’s not that they’re not trying – they really, really are,’’ Laytham said of Polk County transportation leaders. “But voters turned that referendum down.”
It lost, 60 percent to 40 percent.
‘’In retrospect, we can say it wasn’t a good time for that,’’ said Tom Phillips, the executive director of Polk Transit, the agency working to bring more public transportation to Polk County. ‘’The economy was bad. We didn’t do a good enough job of getting out our message. We can say all those things.”
But the bottom line, he said, is that the need for public transportation is still growing, despite the loss of that referendum.
Polk County wasn’t alone. Voters in Osceola and Hillsborough counties were also asked to approve ballot measures to raise taxes to pay for road and transportation improvement projects in November 2010, and both lost as well, by wide margins.
“It’s not unique to Polk County,” Laytham said of the public transit problem. “If you talk to folks in Osceola County, they have the same problem.”
Poinciana is divided between Osceola and Polk counties, and there are Lynx bus routes available on both sides, including the 603 and the 601, which are not fixed routes but a pick up line that people can call in for when they need a ride. The number is 866-204-2976 for the 601 or 603 public transportation buses.
Polk contracts with Lynx to operate route 603, which had 1,297 passengers in March. Route 603 began service in March 2010 with 137 passengers in the first month.
“The pickup line 603 has provided 13,295 passenger trips to the residents of Poinciana in the last 12 months,” said Dave Walters, communications manager for the Polk County Board of Commissioners.
Laytham said he still feels frustrated about the loss of the referendums.
“There’s nothing that bothers me more than when you hear, ‘Well, let the people who use the bus pay for it,’ “ he said. ‘’Those are often the ones least able to afford it.”
Phillips agreed, which he said is why Polk Transit is seeking creative ways to improve service. He plans to discuss those services when he comes to Poinciana on July 23 for a public meeting on the issue.
One of the things Polk Transit is trying to avoid, he said, is fare hikes, Phillips said, and instead instituted a new day pass that residents can take advantage of.
“What we implemented is a day pass that’s double the daily fare, that provides unlimited access to the bus routes,” he said. “You can ride the bus all day for $24. If you think of someone who is unemployed, they can use that pass all day. It can be a significant savings to them. Now they can go to their doctor, get their prescription, then stop at Wal-Greens and get their prescription filled, then stop and get some food and then hop back on the bus.’’
This is helping Polk Transit as well, Phillips said, by getting more people to use their bus routes.
“The more people get on and off the buses, the more we increase ridership,” he said. “If we increase ridership, it’s not just good for the riders, but for the transit system as well.”
Polk Transit also started an Eagles Soar Free program with Polk State College, that offers students with an I.D. badge the option of riding the bus system for free.
‘”You can show your badge in the cities and ride the bus free of charge,’’ Phillips said.
They also initiated Paratransit, a program mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring transportation for those with disabilities.
“If you live within three quarters of where the bus comes, but can’t get there, we provide you with door to door transportation service,” he said.
They also have a Taxi Access Program. If residents buy a $5 voucher from Polk Transit, they can call the taxi service of their choice, and take the taxi rather than the bus. This program is available now in Lakeland, Winter Haven and Bartow, and Phillips said other Polk communities are interested as well.
“Dundee has said the taxi access program would be a viable option for them,” he said.