Polk’s transit system will see improvements in routes and driver compensation

ByShannon J. Cortes

Apr 16, 2022

Citrus Connection, Polk County’s transit agency, this week unveiled a two-part plan to meet demands for more service during a population boom and labor shortages.

“To say it was difficult to put as many services on the street as we have over the past two years is a gross understatement,” said Aaron Dunn, the agency’s director of tax services. “This problem is exacerbated by the explosive growth we have experienced over the past two years.”

After:Lakeland Commissioners Authorize Citrus Connection to Sever Financial Ties with CRA

Final decision? No decision. :Lakeland commissioners continue to vote on Lake Miriam apartments

The agency has averaged eight to 10 bus drivers a day due to COVID over the past two years, according to Citrus Connection executive director Tom Phillips. On top of that, about 20 drivers have resigned for other job opportunities or retired, Philips said. This left the transit agency with 30 drivers out of around 200 – a staffing shortage of around 15%.

“Over the past two years, we’ve had unprecedented staffing challenges,” Phillips said.

Polk County is currently experiencing rapid growth. Polk is the fastest growing county in Florida and the seventh fastest growing in the nation, according to data from the US Census Bureau. The county’s population increased by more than 24,000 from July 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021.

“Explosive urbanization throughout the county necessitates the need for rapid expansion of transit services,” said Kelly Bennington, CFO of Citrus Connection.

New Lakeland Road

Lakeland will get a new downtown traffic route, inspired by the success of the existing Peach Route, formerly called the Dixieland Shuttle, and The Squeeze. Both of these routes cover smaller geographic areas with a more focused route and frequent stops near points of interest.

Citrus Connection will launch a new shuttle service in July using two street-legal electric carts, like the one pictured above, to transport people around downtown Lakeland.  Service will be provided during weekday lunch hours and weekend evenings.

“These routes are what people want,” Dunn said. “They use them. The ridership has never been higher, the frequency is better and you don’t have to take two buses to get from one end of downtown to the other.”

Dunn said there are 11 existing routes that all depart from Citrus Connection’s Lakeland terminal. These will be changed slightly so that buses will not stop until they are in the area of ​​town they serve. The new downtown circulator will allow passengers to get to the terminal, Dunn said, and transfer if necessary.

“It’s much more convenient for our citizens in this region,” he said.

Eastward expansion

Citrus Connection will continue to increase public bus service to the east side of Polk County later this year.

Phillips said the agency would seek to continue its agreement with third-party contractor Transitions Commute Solutions, Inc. The company would take over the operations of:

  • Route 17X (Lake of Wales/Haines City Express)
  • Route 40-44 (Winter Haven Southside)
  • Route 50 (Auburndale)
  • Route 60 (Northeast Winter Haven)

This change would put Transitions Commute in charge of operations for most of the east side of Polk County. No Citrus Connection bus driver would be fired, Phillips said.

Polk commissioners George Lindsey and Martha Santiago asked what would happen if Transitions couldn’t operate the bus lines efficiently. Their concerns stem from recent performance issues with the county’s contracted waste hauler, which resulted in the temporary suspension of recycling pickup from 78,000 homes.

Phillips said Citrus Connection will maintain a dedicated fleet of buses should the contractor run out of vehicles. If it starts losing employees on a regular basis, the transit agency will come back to its board of directors with a request to add driver positions.

“We would take over those routes and no longer allow them to charge for those routes under the contract,” he said.

The change in service will free up funds in Citrus Connection’s budget to meet and exceed the Florida minimum wage of $15 per hour by 2026.

Wage increase for drivers

Citrus Connection has historically struggled to recruit bus drivers, according to Phillips, and has faced increasing challenges in Polk’s current job market. New drivers get their CDL license and move on to better-paying jobs, he said.

For the first time, Phillips said “former employees” who have served the agency for 10 years or more are also leaving for other opportunities too good to pass up.

To stem the tide, Citrus Connection will increase the hourly rate of pay for its drivers starting October 1. Employees under the age of three will go from less than $15 to $18 an hour. Drivers with four to nine years of employment will receive a raise to $21 per hour, those 10 years or older will receive $24 per hour.

Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7545. Follow on Twitter @SaraWalshFl.