Starting with a long-range vision, Poinciana gears up to sell Polk County on the need for more transit.

Could this track off Poinciana Boulevard eventually become the starting point for an expansion of commuter rail into Polk County? (Photo by Michael Freeman).

POINCIANA – It can be very frustrating, Annette Brown-Best said, to live in a community like Poinciana that was built for homes, and then businesses, but not for a huge number of commuters – or for people who don’t have a car at all.
It’s not cheap, the Poinciana resident admits, to bring more transportation options to an area not particularly close to major cities and the bus service available there. The solution, she added, is to make that first step and acknowledge there’s a need – and then work together on a solution.
“Things take time,” Brown-Best said. “You take baby steps. But I’m so happy that we were on the radar, and someone is listening to us.”
Brown-Best was one of several Poinciana residents who went to the Polk State University campus on Wednesday, to hear Polk Transit — a county agency working to develop improved transportation options — unveil its long term transit proposal for the entire county, including Poinciana.
What impressed Brown-Best the most was that while Polk Transit had a vision for major urban areas in Polk County like Lakeland and Winter Haven, there was also one exclusively for Poinciana.
“I was pleased with the fact that they had brochures for every area in Polk County, and Poinciana had its own brochure,” she said. “They are listening to us. The biggest problem we’ve had is getting someone to listen to the community.”
Polk Transit is indeed listening, said Tom Phillips, the agency’s executive director, who noted that Poinciana was unique in that it was the only non-urban community to have its own long-range transportation plan and visioning.
“What we are about is community transit solutions, and Poinciana was a part of that,” Phillips said.
The agency has been trying to learn more about what local residents – including the residents of the Polk County side of Poinciana – need in terms of public transportation options. The 31,000 residents living on the Polk County side of Poinciana, where the 10 villages also go into Osceola County, now have two pick up bus routes, the 601 and 603.
Keith Laytham, the president of the local civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, also attended Wednesday’s meeting and felt it was an important first step: to lay out a vision for meeting the community’s future transit needs.
“What they did is they rolled out a new vision program for Polk County,” Laytham said. “But rather than a one-solution-fits-all approach for all of Polk County, they tried to provide tailored solutions for communities with different needs.”
During the meeting, Polk Transit handed out brochures outlining their visions for different communities, including one for Poinciana.
“All the cities were represented in the brochures, but Poinciana was the only non-city that got its own brochure,” Laytham said.
And the vision outlined for Poinciana, he added, was to look east – to Orlando.
“For our community which is in Northeast Polk, our needs are mostly transportation solutions to get you to Orlando,” Laytham said. “The plan is an integrated combination that consists of bus service and rail service and roads.”
That vision could build on what is already either available to Poinciana, or in the planning stages for the future. In addition to the two pick up bus routes provided by Polk County, there’s bus service on the Osceola County side of Poinciana provided by Lynx.
The SunRail commuter rail line, which will start operating in 2014, will run from Debary in Volusia County to downtown Orlando, then continue on to Poinciana, stopping at the intersection of Poinciana Boulevard and Orange Blossom Trail.
Polk and Osceola counties have also agreed to build a new toll road, the Poinciana Parkway, which would be operated by the Osceola County Expressway Authority.
Laytham said all of these transportation and infrastructure improvements give agencies like Polk Transit a spine to build on for expansions in the future.
“We’ve got the rail service coming to Poinciana,” Laytham said. “The people of Davenport and Haines City would like to use the rail as well, so it’s not out of the question to extend SunRail past Poinciana into Polk County and service the people of Davenport and Haines City.”
But even without extending the rail lines into Northeast Polk County, Laytham said it was still possible to offer bus pick up service at the Poinciana SunRail station.
“You’d have a bus travel down (U.S.) 17/92 into Davenport and Haines City,” he said.
Brown-Best said it makes sense to look for ways to connect Poinciana residents to transportation options now available in the Orlando area, where most commuters now go for work.
“What we all came up with is access to OIA (Orlando International Airport) and Orlando,” she said. “All of the people in our group said they work at Disney or in the direction of Orlando. They don’t go to Lakeland.”
The challenge, of course, is finding the funding to make these proposals a reality. Phillips said it’s important now to start building public support for these proposals, since it will likely require residents of the entire county to make it happen. He noted that in November 2010, 60 percent of Polk County residents rejected a ballot referendum to raise the sales tax to pay for improved transportation options.
“The Polk Transit Authority had put together a transportation referendum in 2010,” he said. “One can suppose a variety of reasons why that failed. But even after that, we’re still going to launch a transportation development plan, a TDP.”
“You have to take baby steps before you can run,” Laytham said. “Polk Transit has been very, very honest about this. This is going to require a funding source. They could get it through federal funding, through federal grants. Or they could get it from the county, through a sales or property tax hike. And let’s face it, either the sales or property tax hike would require a vote, and if it doesn’t win, this doesn’t happen.”
Brown-Best said if the residents of Poinciana want these services, they have to let their voices be heard, and fight for it.
“They would need to get funding for all of these different things,” she said. “These are long-term conversations we’re having.”

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