Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Getting Serious About Mass Transit by PBC Commissioner Jeff Koons

The tight economic times have forced all of us to look closely at our day-to-day spending and make some changes. One change I urge all of you to consider is to use public transportation. Not only is it less expensive and better for the environment than driving your own vehicle, Palm Beach County has initiated some major improvements to make riding the bus or train a more convenient and comfortable experience.

In May, the long-awaited Intermodal Transportation Center opened in downtown West Palm Beach, and what a difference it’s making. This project has been in the works since 1992 when the county bought the six-acre site along Clearwater Drive. Thanks to a multiagency partnership, the new $5 million facility is the centerpiece of a plan to redevelop the west-central downtown area as a transit-oriented village. Locating Palm Tran’s main service hub alongside the Tri-Rail/Amtrak platform makes for a seamless connection to the regional commuter train system.
The new center has parking spaces for 18 buses, seven covered shelters with lighting and benches, new restrooms and water fountains, and an easy to use "kiss-and-drop" area. At the north end, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority will soon open a park-and-ride lot for Tri-Rail passengers. In the fall, a new automated vehicle location system should be online, and electronic signs will provide real-time information on when the next bus arrives.

Palm Tran buses are now running every 15 to 20 minutes during peak weekday hours along Route 1, the busiest route, and service has been accelerated along several other redrawn routes. For example, Route 43 is now a direct east-west run along Okeechobee Boulevard with the elimination of a 20-minute detour on Palm Beach Lakes. Buses run to and from the depot 17 hours a day Monday through Friday, 15 hours on Saturdays, and approximately nine hours on Sundays.

It’s hard to say whether bus ridership has increased since the new intermodal center opened -- summer months tend to be slower -- but the feedback has been very positive, and there is no question it is a vast improvement over the crowded, rickety shelters Palm Tran used to call a hub on Quadrille Boulevard.

To further boost ridership, the Board of County Commissioners recently approved spending $700,000 for a new park-and-ride lot at the Mall at Wellington Green, expected to open in November. We have received $18 million in federal grants to build a public transit facility and park-and-ride lot in Belle Glade. The monies will also pay for new fuel-efficient vehicles and much-needed shop and computer equipment.

I’m very excited about Palm Tran’s first-ever Palm Beach/Martin County Commuter Express Route slated to begin service in late-August. It will provide weekday service from Halpatiokee Regional Park in Stuart to the West Palm Beach intermodal center, with only two stops along the way: at the West Jupiter Recreation Center in Jupiter and The Gardens mall in Palm Beach Gardens.

Of course, in order for public transportation to work for everyone, other commuter modes, such as Tri-Rail, need financial support, too. Unfortunately, our state lawmakers once again failed to approve a dedicated funding source for Tri-Rail, leaving its future in doubt. I find this puzzling and frustrating because the commuter rail system has not only doubled its ridership since 2005, it is breaking national ridership records. A recent passenger survey showed that 84 percent of Tri-Rail riders were licensed drivers, dispelling the notion that people simply weren’t willing to give up their cars to get to work. Clearly, the demand is there, and as chairman of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority Governing Board, which oversees Tri-Rail operations, I am going to continue hammering on the need for a dedicated funding source to keep Tri-Rail rolling.

The SFRTA is considering a number of system improvements that would greatly benefit Palm Beach County, including:

extending service north to Jupiter
a new Tri-Rail station at PBIA
a new Tri-Rail station near the Town Center Mall in Boca Raton
parking and circulation improvements at the Mangonia Park, Lake Worth, Delray Beach and Boca Raton stations

But again, these improvements won’t happen without a dedicated funding source. Whether it’s a small surcharge on rental cars, some type of highway toll or a special sales tax – all of which have been used successfully elsewhere – we must get state officials on board with our local commitment to public transportation. As always, I welcome your comments and questions. Please feel free to contact me or my staff at 355-2202.