Lewis, the chief executive officer for the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority – which operates the Lynx bus system — was addressing the members of the civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change on Monday at the Poinciana Library when one of the members, Tony Claudio, raised the issue.
“When are we going to see some bus shelters here?” Claudio asked.
Lewis, who said he’s also worked on public transit systems in Baltimore and other cities, hears this all the time.
“Bus shelters were never an issue for me anywhere until I got to Florida,” Lewis said — adding that he understands why. “Here, out waiting for a bus, you’re either baking in the sun or getting soaked.”
As a result, “We can’t build enough bus shelters, fast enough,” he added.
Bus shelters to protect commuters from the summer heat or rainstorms may be an issue for Lynx to consider in a growing community like Poinciana, but it’s not the only one, Lewis said.
At a time when ridership on public transit systems is soaring, Lewis said he hopes to expand Lynx’s outreach and bring even more commuters onto the bus system.
When the state’s economy was booming, Lewis said, it was virtually impossible to get funding increases to expand the system.
“It was very difficult to make an argument for transit when transit wasn’t being used,” he said.
But the downturn in the economy changed all that, Lewis added.
“Now our buses are busting at the seams,” he said. “So we’ve solved that problem. A number of things are moving people to public transit. The economy is one thing, and so is gas prices. But I think we’re in a new dawn for public transit.”
It reflects, he added, a desire among Central Floridians to be more frugal with their income – and they’re recognizing that public transit can be more affordable than maintaining a car.
“That kind of frugality is coming back,” he said. “People are looking for the best bang for their buck.”
For those who finally use the Lynx bus system for the first time, Lewis said, it can be a genuine awakening.
“Once they get on it, it was like a light bulb went off, and they were like ‘Wow, I can get from point A to point B, it’s very affordable, and I can text safely to my family now,’ ” he said.
That may be why Lynx ridership has risen every year for the past four years, Lewis added.
“One year you can say it’s a blip,” Lewis said. “Four years in a row, it’s a trend.”
With demand for public transit on the rise — including in communities like Poinciana — Lynx is looking at ways of expanding its reach, he added.
“We have some challenges,” he said. “We’re not done. We can do more. We can do better. Our goal at Lynx is to become the mode of choice, not the mode of last resort.”
Lynx is now working on a study for expanded bus service along U.S. 192, he said, and is building a bus center in downtown Kissimmee to provide expanded service to commuters who will be usin the SunRail commuter rail line, which begins operating in 2014. It will run from Volusia County to downtown Orlando and then continue into Osceola County, ending in Poinciana.
Lynx is also working on plans for more local bus shelters, he added, even though the average cost of one, at about $15,000, is more expensive in Florida than other states. That’s because those shelters are required to be resistant to major storms.
“They cost $15,000 because of a little thing called hurricanes,” Lewis said. “They are expensive, but we are getting them out as fast as we can.”
Another PRSC member, Annette Brown-Best, said she had a different complaint: that many of the bus drivers serving Poinciana have been rude to the commuters.
“Your drivers are leaving people on the side of the road,” she said. “They are leaving people in a wheelchair on the side of the road.”
Lewis responded that “There is no question that in every barrel, there are bad apples,” prompting Brown-Best to quickly respond, “We have a lot of them out here.”
Lewis noted that “Big Brother” – also known as the Lynx system management – would be responding to any complaints filed against individual drivers to ensure they treat customers well.
“I do believe the vast majority of our bus drivers are conscientious public servants,” he said.
Lynx is also looking to meet the growing demand for public transit in Poinciana since ridership is on the rise there, and the buses operating in the community now are overcrowded, Lewis said.
“At the end of the day, we’re service providers,” he said. “And if people call us and say ‘I need to get from here to there,’ if we can do it, we will do it.”
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