A new bus route may connect the four-mile gap between Lee and Collier counties by October 1, but the plan still faces a couple of detours.
Lee County Commissioners on Tuesday gave a preliminary green light to expand bus service into Collier County, extending Lee Tran’s Route 150 bus past its current terminus on Bonita Beach Road to Immokalee Road in Naples.
Commissioners agreed unanimously to enter into a partnership with Florida Department of Transportation and accept a $626,000 grant to restructure the Bonita Springs and Estero bus service.
“It’s the regional approach we must take,” said Commissioner Ray Judah.
Currently, Collier Area Transit’s service’s northernmost stop is Immokalee Road and Lee Tran in Bonita stops at Bonita Beach Road, leaving riders with a four-mile gap between counties.
Judah was concerned with the funds required to provide the service, however.
The proposed changes would increase the annual operations cost to about $1 million from about $567,000.
In addition to expanding the route south into Collier County, the plan calls for converting the seasonal trolley into a daily east-west service.
“We want to make sure that Collier fully participates with their proportionate share,” Judah said.
The transportation department offered grants to both counties, said Steve Myers, Lee Tran’s transit director, and the intent had been a two-county project.
On Tuesday morning, however, Collier County backed away, Myers said.
“What that would do would be leaving Lee County as the operator of the service,” he said.
Connie Deane, Collier’s transportation spokeswoman, said the decision came down to a required 50 percent match for transportation grants.
“Collier hasn’t been able to come up with the match to provide service,” Deane said. “We’d really like to. At this point, we’re doing what we can to maintain the service we have.”
Collier’s grant was $206,000.
She said she hoped Lee County would go forward with the project by itself, something Lee Commissioner Brian Bigelow also emphasized.
“Even if Collier doesn’t pony up and accept the overture that we’re making, I think it’s really important that we do provide the service,” ” Bigelow said.
He said Lee’s economy would get a boost from Collier residents making their way to what he called “a significant job creator,” Coconut Point mall.
There were about 51,600 trips on Route 150 last year, said Lee Tran spokeswoman Joann Haley.
The expanded service is expected to boost ridership by 41 percent, or about 21,600 riders, in the first year.
“You’re tapping into a whole other county,” Haley said.
The project also hinges on Bonita Springs.
The city must commit to continuing its contract with Lee Tran.
Bonita is negotiating with an alternate transportation provider after former City Councilman Pat McCourt suggested the city could save money or receive better service from a private contractor.
Route 150 costs about $446,000 annually and Bonita pays about $170,000 of that.
Bonita’s special project coordinator, John Gucciardo, said the city hasn’t committed yet to re-up with Lee Tran.
Gucciardo plans to address the project’s status at Wednesday’s City Council meeting and recommend the city continue examining both paths.
“This isn’t a done deal,” he said of the county’s expanded service. “At this point, it’s very promising though.”
Route 150’s new schedule hasn’t been finalized, Myers said.
But Haley said Lee Tran may no longer serve a small section of its current route on U.S. 41 near Terry Street. She did not have ridership numbers for this section but said it was “lightly used.”
Any agreements between Lee County and other partners will have to be reviewed and accepted by the Lee County commissioners before any changes are implemented.
Connect with Tara E. McLaughlin at www.naplesnews.com/staff/tara-mclaughlin/