Collier's 10-year public transit plan details host of recommended improvements
Collier County's public transit system is planning for the next decade and that could mean new and realigned routes, expanded hours and increased frequency.
And, in some areas, potentially electric shuttles and ride-share-type alternatives to buses.
Last month, commissioners approved the county's transit development plan, a roadmap for its public transportation strategies for fiscal year 2021 through 2030.
The Florida Department of Transportation requires each transit agency to develop a major update to the plan every five years and an annual update/progress report for all other years to be eligible to receive State Block Grant Funds for the transit system. This year requires a major update.
The plan recommends implementation strategies to achieve the county's public transit goals and identifies new potential projects.
"It’s important for us to have a longer term look at, you know, how operations for transit can be developed within the community," Michelle Arnold, the county's director of public transit and neighborhood enhancement, said in an interview Wednesday.
The plan tries to look at various communities and identify what their specific needs are, she said.
“So it wasn’t like ‘one size fits all’ type (of) approach," Arnold said.
Among other things, the plan proposes:
- A new island trolley that would travel along Collier Boulevard on Marco Island and connect to a realigned express route that allows residents to get from the county's government center to the island and back. The island trolley, the plan's authors suggest, would help mitigate the need to drive and reduce congestion and parking demand.
- Electric shuttles for the Bayshore Drive community to allow residents to hop on and off in an area that has a growing nightlife and leisure culture, and for downtown Naples to alleviate congestion and parking demands. The downtown shuttle would make stops at the Naples Pier, Crayton Cove and shops and restaurants south of Sixth Avenue South, the plan recommends.
- An Interstate 75 express route that would begin at the county's government center and end in the vicinity of the Gulf Coast Town Center in Lee County. That proposal, Arnold said, would likely need more time to develop because of the cost associated with it potentially and needing to coordinate with Lee officials.
- A concept called "Mobility-on-Demand": The idea would be to provide a ride-sharing service to certain areas, including parts of Golden Gate Estates, North Naples, Naples and Marco Island. That could mean a potential partnership between the county and ride-sharing companies, allowing for riders to pay less than they ordinarily would if they used Uber or Lyft on their own, Arnold said. The concept, the plan suggests, could be "a way of serving hard-to-reach areas within the county and offer a more cost-effective alternative to the public."
- A vanpooling program to allow residents to travel to and from Everglades City. The county is coordinating with Everglades City and the state Department of Transportation to create the program as part of a districtwide effort to be implemented early next fiscal year, according to the plan. Arnold said the county could partner with a rental car company to make it more affordable for riders to lease vans.
While some of the plan's proposals still warrant more studying and are likely further down the road, Arnold said some of the short-term goals and higher priorities are to run buses more frequently and at extended hours.
The community has had requests for such improvements repeatedly, she said.
Stakeholder interviews conducted with local city and county officials as part of the plan echoed those sentiments.
"The highest priorities for making improvements to the transit system were increasing the span of service, increasing service frequency, adding shelters, introducing mobility-on-demand services, and connecting service with sidewalks and bicycle/multimodal improvements," the plan states.
Collier County, with its spread-out communities and far-reaching road network, has been struggling with a decline in public transit ridership for years, a trend that isn't unique to Southwest Florida.
The total number of passenger trips for Collier Area Transit decreased from about 1.3 million in 2013 to 840,000 in 2018, a 38% drop, according to the plan.
"Ridership decline has been consistent in the transit industry since the end of the Great Recession," the plan's authors wrote.
Ridership costs range from $2 for a full fare to $40 for a 30-day pass and include discounts for special circumstances. Children 5 and under are free.
The plan suggests that shifting to "a streamlined network and adding on-demand services in lower density areas rather than a fixed route will help CAT better match service supply to service demand."
Arnold said the pandemic has exacerbated the slide in ridership. But having shorter wait times and running buses later into the night and earlier in the morning could help draw more riders again, she said.
"I think part of our way to address the ridership is to try to give this community the service that they need or desire," she said.
Funding is the biggest challenge, said Arnold, adding that the pandemic could impact a lot of federal and state grants.
"We're going to have to evaluate that and determine where some of the funding would have to come from to help to expand those services," she said.
The plan lays out cost projections both under a constrained and unconstrained funding scenario, the latter being one where money is not an issue.
The total cost of operating over the 10-year span for the unconstrained model would be $165 million, with costs ranging from $12-13 million a year up to as much as $22.5 million a year, Arnold said.
For the constrained model, the total operating cost would be about $126 million for the 10-year period, with annual costs mostly in the $11-12 million range. Currently, the transit system has an operating cost of about $10 million a year, Arnold said.
The next step for the county will be to work with a consultant to evaluate some of the short-term goals and objectives that were in the plan to figure out how officials can implement the recommendations, Arnold said.