Polk County’s three-in-one public transit enterprise is showing growth in service and viability through an increasing number of public-private and even public-public initiatives.
From its modest beginnings as Lakeland’s Citrus Connection bus service, Polk’s public transit operations now include both Winter Haven Area Transit and Polk County’s assortment of bus services.
They are moving from a cooperative relationship to a single organization, providing maximum service with minimum duplication.
Tom Phillips, who heads both the Lakeland and Polk County operations, with which Winter Haven’s service is scheduled to be merged in 14 months, has spoken to two groups in Bartow in the past month, outlining both present and future operations.
Through arrangements with 13 entities, students and employees are offered a variety of transportation options.
Contracts with the Polk County school system, Polk State College, and the Lakeland campus of the University of South Florida offer college students free transportation to and from their campuses, and free after-school transportation throughout the county for high school students.
As Phillips is quick to point out, while students do not pay at the fare box, their costs are covered through student activity fees at the college level, and through a contract with the school board for high school students.
Through a contract with Legoland, one of Central Florida’s largest employers, the systems provide transportation to and from work for its employees. A similar arrangement is in prospect with Disney World.
Plans are on the drawing board for service to the Tampa and Orlando international airports (with a stop at the VA hospital in Tampa and Disney World in Orlando), rides which would cost a fraction of the tariff for parking at airport parking lots.
In response to a question at this week’s meeting of the Bartow Rotary Club, Phillips said there is potential for further cooperation with the school board, perhaps transporting students who live in cities on public transit buses, with school buses focusing on transportation from rural areas not served by public transit. It is an intriguing possibility.
One of the strengths of the public transit system is that it is working to implement customized local services in each of the county’s 17 municipalities, rather than applying a one-size-fits-all template to cities with different needs.
Phillips gives much of the credit to Steve Githens for raising public bus service from an untested idea to a countywide enterprise. Githens headed the fledgling Citrus Connection bus service in Lakeland for its first 24 years, opening the public’s eyes to the potential for routes throughout the county. Githens gave birth to public transit in Polk County.
In the past year, the county transit service was so successful that it refunded $100,000 of its public funding to the county commission.
Public transit is an idea whose time has come in Polk County, filling a growing array of needs for riders and creating opportunities for citizens of all ages and interests.