More buses, running longer into night considered to ease traffic in Collier County

Passengers circulate around the Collier Area Transit Intermodal Transfer Station at the Collier County Government Center on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, in East Naples.

As drivers continue to pack Collier streets during rush hour, the county is mulling putting more buses on roads to alleviate traffic during peak hours and extend service on certain routes later into the night to accommodate workers.

Collier commissioners heard those and other recommendations during a transit workshop Tuesday. County officials are considering how to make sure a public transit system projected to face a potential budget shortfall next fiscal year can keep up with a growing county.

Public transit options are becoming increasingly important to younger residents the county hopes to keep in Collier in the future, said Commissioner Andy Solis.

Naples resident Suzanne Listo boards a Collier Area Transit bus heading from the Intermodal Transfer Station at the Collier County Government Center on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, in East Naples. The Collier County bus service celebrated its 15th anniversary on Friday. (David Albers/Staff)

“I think if we want our younger people to stay here, work here, help us diversify the economy, this is one of these things that we have to take seriously and invest in,” he said.

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The county currently has 19 fixed routes and about 35 vehicles for a paratransit service that allows riders to schedule transports by phone. The majority — 70 percent — of its fixed routes have buses run in 90-minute intervals or longer. There are no buses that now pick up riders every 40 minutes or sooner. 

Michelle Arnold, the county's director of public transit and neighborhood enhancement, said county staff recommend increasing the frequency on some of the routes during the hours of heaviest use by putting more buses on the road.

Instead of having to wait 90 minutes or longer, riders should be able to catch a bus every 30 minutes or less on about 30 percent of the current routes, she said.

“I’m sure everybody’s like, ‘Well, doesn’t it cost us more money to provide enhanced service?’ ” Arnold said to commissioners. “Yes, it does. But we’re trying to provide a product that will attract riders and give them another transportation option.”

Depending on how many routes would get enhanced service, the cost increase could be from $350,000 to $850,000, Arnold said.

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The county would increase frequency for part of the route during peak hours. Those routes could include those along Airport-Pulling Road and U.S. 41, because a lot of businesses are located along those corridors, Arnold said after Tuesday’s workshop. 

Additionally, county staff have proposed looking at the system’s hours of operation, potentially extending them for those who work later into the night. That could mean having the last bus pick up riders at 10 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., Arnold said.

“A lot of people in the retail industry work until 9,” she said.

Ridership numbers on fixed routes have declined over the years in Collier, in part due to the rise of new ride services such as Uber and Lyft.

However, buses still are packed during the busiest hours, Arnold said.

“We have standing room only on many of our buses during the peak hours. ...,” she said. “We’ve had to actually turn people away on some of our routes during the peak hours.”

The county is turning to technology to make public transit more convenient, including creating an app to enable paratransit riders to schedule trips and enhancing an app to allow fixed-route users to purchase tickets. Wifi is expected in buses within a year, Arnold said.

Collier hires outside vendors to take care of some aspects of the public transit system. One vendor provides customer service, dispatch and scheduling services. Another hires the drivers and runs the routes. The county manages the maintenance of the vehicles and provides the fuel.

But the county is going back to a single-vendor model, “which we believe works a lot better for the size system that we have,” Arnold said.

Newly christened Beach Bus vehicles replace Collier County's green trolleys used in this year's inaugural run for shuttles to the beach.

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Collier contributes about $19 per capita to run its transit system, compared with almost $40 in Lee County, $25 in Manatee County and $73 in Sarasota County, according to a county staff presentation.

“The higher per capita contribution, we think, helps contribute to the higher level of service within those counties,” Arnold told commissioners. 

To subsidize the transit system’s current budget, the department has relied on unspent money and reserves from previous years. Those dollars have now been depleted, Arnold said. 

With vendors' proposed new contracts marking an increase over the current contract costs by $1.2 million, county staff project a $1.8 million shortfall in fiscal 2020.

To address that deficit, Arnold said, the county could reconsider its policy of not allowing advertisements outside the bus and at bus shelters. Under current rules, advertising is only allowed inside the buses and transfer station.

Along with exploring naming rights and leasing county space to commuter transportation companies like Greyhound and Red Coach, additional advertising could bring in roughly $600,000 annually, Arnold said.

Other options could include deferring replacement of vehicles, increasing local funding, and reducing service — a route that county staff said was not recommended.

Commissioner Burt Saunders, too, said he was not in favor of decreasing current service levels.

“I have no issues with enhancing the service, I do have a problem with any consideration of reduction of service,” he said.

Riders and public transportation advisory committee members, some of whom spoke Tuesday, agreed. 

John Jenkins, a businessman and member of the county’s public transportation advisory committee, said his workers have to wait long periods of time if they miss a bus.

“I need more from the public transportation system,” he told commissioners. “I can’t rely on a bus serving my business and bringing my employees once an hour. That doesn’t work. If my employee misses the bus I have to wait for my employee to catch the next bus, an hour from now.”

Jenkins said the current system, serving the needs of residents and tourists, is “wholly inadequate.”

“You can’t go out to a bar in this town, have a few drinks and then catch the bus home at night,” Jenkins said. “There’s no bus service at night. The bus service ends. That’s crazy. We should be putting people on buses instead of pouring them into their cars behind the driver’s wheel and tell them to go out on the roads. Get them into a bus.”

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Bruce Kennedy, who has been using the bus daily since his car broke down 2 ½ years ago, said he has been "mostly impressed" with the service. However, a few bus stations, he said, could use security personnel, and some stations need better lighting to make sure the bus driver can see patrons.

"I've been passed (on) more than a couple occasions," Kennedy said, adding that adequate lighting provides security and safety for the riders.

County staff is expected to bring more specific budget proposals to county commissioners later this year.

Readers anc connect with this reporter at or on Twitter @PatJRiley.