LeeTran ridership overall in Lee County has increased immensely, while impressive numbers on the Beach routes continue to stay strong.
According to its Marketing Manager Joann Haley, LeeTran recorded 3.7 million rides countywide at the end of fiscal year 2012 - a powerful 17 percent increase from the previous year. The American Public Transportation Association, which collects statistics and educates the publics about the benefits of public transportation, applauded LeeTran's efforts.
"Our national trade association sent out a press release saying that was one of the biggest increases in the nation," she said. "(This increase) is almost unheard of, and our numbers are continuing to increase."
After two people exited, one person was allowed to climb aboard a full trolley at a park-n-ride at the corner of San Carlos Boulevard and Main Street on San Carlos Island.
As of the month of February 2013, LeeTran has also racked up 31 consecutive months of ridership increase. Officials believe they are going to hit the 4-million rider mark this year.
LeeTran's Beach trolley routes slightly improved on last year's impressive increase in ridership numbers. With a two-trolley system, LeeTran runs one trolley route from Winn-Dixie plaza to Bowditch Point Park to Lovers Key State Park for the first half of January and will resume that route beginning next week (averaging every 45 minutes per pickup). In between, during the tourism season, the route is traditionally broken up into two routes and designated as the Park-n-Ride route with three trolleys (Winn-Dixie plaza to Bowditch Point Park) and the Beach Trolley route (Bowditch Point Park to Lovers Key State Park) that runs four trolleys in February and five in March.
In January 2013, the combined Beach ridership numbers totaled 36,275, nearly mirroring 36,264 in January 2012. In February 2013, those figures read 57,663, just above the 56,632 in February 2012. During March, ridership was higher in 2012 with 85,554 riders compared to 82,336 in 2013 -a difference possibly skewed by inclement weather during that month this year
"It appears to be comparable if not slightly better overall," said Haley. "I think our ridership goes hand-in-hand with tourism. The only thing that might be slightly different is the number of people day-tripping from the mainland."
While tourism indicators help, history is a better sign to gage how many trolleys might be needed.
"We pay attention to how tourism season goes, when spring break falls and when Easter falls and hotel rates go down," said Haley. "But, basically, we look primarily at our own ridership history."
LeeTran has had a complete overhaul of Beach trolleys now that they have retired the old ones and replaced them with environmentally friendly new ones. Nine new trolleys -seven state-of-the-art clean diesel trolleys and two hybrid, low-floor trolleys- are now in service, thanks to stimulus money and a grant from the Federal Transportation Administration through a program called "State of Good Repair."
The ultra-quiet hybrids are being used for "off-season" times. You can recognize them as being full blue in color with a cupula on top to hide the battery.
"In the short term, the maintenance costs are lower. So, we will be savings both on fuel and maintenance costs for the first several years," Haley said about them.
Natural gas was looked into to power trolleys, but the expense at this time is too high. Those types of trolleys are roughly $1 million apiece, says Haley.
"They are a little bit above our budgetary horizon right now," she quipped.
A tough economy over the last several years has contributed to more people taking the trolley in recent years. For a fare of 50 cents per ride, one can enjoy 25 fixed bus routes, an increase from 21 routes in 2011.
"The last time we did our trans-development plan (published in 2012), which includes a lot of research and passenger interviews, we found that 30 percent of our passengers don't have access to a car," said Haley. "That's higher than recent years and one indication that the economy has affected people's transportation choices."
While the dedicated trolley lane on Matanzas Bridge has allowed riders a quicker access to the beach during that short span, the traffic congestion on San Carlos Boulevard has not helped. Haley said more study and community dialogue about a proposed trolley express lane on that stretch of road is expected in the future.
"The issue hasn't been killed, but it really hasn't progressed either," she added.
Traffic congestion has not deterred people from coming to the Beach, though. An estimated 18,000 visitors come onto Estero Island a day, according to Lee County Department of Transportation numbers.
Among those visitors are LeeTran trolley riders, who should note that the new "summer" trolley schedule for the Beach takes effect on Thursday, April 18. Schedules are available at any Lee County Publix Supermarket or most Lee County libraries.
History and disabled citizen service
A private transit service started "Tropic Transit" in April of 1952. The 18-passenger minibus made four trips daily to Fort Myers. The service was discontinued after approximately two years of operation.
The Florida Department of Transportation launched a three-year service demonstration project for today's trolley service in December of 1987. Lee County then took over the funding of the service.
LeeTran has run its trolley system for more than 20 years. It is currently operated under the authority of the Lee County Government and the Board of Lee County Commissioners.
It also operates Passport - an American Disability Act paratransit service for disabled citizens who are unable to use the fixed route system.
Go to www.rideleetran.com for more information on that service and schedules for all services.
BOCC to decide on transit committee
After more than two years of deliberations, the Lee County Transit Task Force recently decided to ask the Board of County Commissioners to form a Transit Special Management Committee to provide planning and oversight for transit.
The request will be included on a commission meeting agenda in mid-April. If approved, the committee would have its first meeting in late April.
One of the committee's goals is to transition to an Independent Transit Authority. It will direct all the steps in the process of forming this entity, including community outreach and education. It will also identify a funding source with sufficient, sustainable resources to allow the transit agency to implement its long-term vision plan and provide better transit services to the county.
While working toward these goals, the committee will review public transit service plans, make recommendations on policy and budget for transit, and serve as a forum for addressing and resolving transit issues.
"This is a small but meaningful step in the process that began in February 2011 when the Board of County Commissioners asked our group for short- and long-term recommendations on how to fund transit," said task force member Russell Shropp. "LeeTran's ridership is growing rapidly, and we need to identify funding to help meet the growing need for transportation options."