Polk County’s mass transit system, Citrus Connection, is set for growth as the county grows.

But it’s not looking at today or tomorrow: It’s working on Re-Route 2020 and the expansion of services in East Polk. The mission – to ensure access to a bus ride is convenient for all. Last year, the bus service provided about 2.2 million rides. It continues to operate and improve services despite the failure of a referendum in 2014 that would have provided additional funding.

Along with several new initiatives, the transit service continues to:

  • Offer public high school students free bus service during the school year as part of its COLTS program (Community of Learning Transportation Services), which is funded by the Polk County School Board.
  • Offer bus service to about a dozen businesses and community organizations that have paid the way for their employees, such as LEGOLAND, as part of the Universal Access program.
  • Make it easier for people to pay to ride. No more coins needed. Now, you can purchase a SMARTCARD at any one of five locations, load it and just swipe on the bus. One ride, daily, weekly and monthly passes are available.

Now that you know where the bus system has come from, take a look at three things it’s doing or planning within the next year under the leadership of Executive Director Tom Phillips.

Lakeland Expansion

The Citrus Connection is working on a plan that consolidates eight Lakeland routes into five, color coding them to make it easier for riders to plan their trips. Two buses will run on each route.

“Re-Route 2020 is truly the biggest project we are working on at this time,” said Erin Killebrew, the Citrus Connection’s director of external affairs. “It is a complete redesign of the transit system within the city of Lakeland, providing earlier and later service with more frequency. It is a Citrus Connection transit initiative to restructure and simplify the Lakeland Area Mass Transit District that follows these principles:

  • Each of the new routes accomplish the same things that the current routes do now.
  • The routes do not eliminate any current service area or bus stop.
  • The routes will begin earlier in the day and end later in the evenings (5:45 a.m. start and 7:45 p.m. end).
  • The system is created to be more user-friendly (eliminating most of the number routes, consolidating them and making them color coded.”

Killebrew said they are in the testing phase now (April, May and June 2019), and surveys and video interviews show response is positive. If the Citrus Connection’s board of directors approves, Re-Route 2020 routes will launch in October.

East Polk Expansion

In East Polk, Citrus Connection will be adding two routes to provide service to residents in Loughman and from Lake Wales to Haines City, Killebrew said. One will be an express service from Lakes Wales to Haines City along U.S. 27 that starts Oct. 1. That route will “expand employment options, educational opportunities and transportation independence for a critical part of the Ridge,” she said.

That expansion is possible because East Polk cities, and the County Commission, have supported paying their “fair share,” or 20% of the cost of the mass transit services being provided. All cities except Eagle Lake and Frostproof agreed to pay that amount, and some are paying more, Killebrew said.

“That proactive approach and anticipated funding will provide transit access from Haines City to Poinciana, Orlando, Winter Haven and all the routes Citrus Connection operates in Polk County,” Killebrew said. “With the addition of these routes, riders in eastern Polk County will have endless transit possibilities meeting mobility needs.”

Killebrew says the expansion would not be possible without the leadership and support — financial and otherwise — of Phillips, the Citrus Connection board of directors, local cities and the County Commission.

“They have gotten us to where we are today,” she said. “And we are doing that without increasing fares. Virtually no transit organization has done this.”

Lakeland City Commissioner Phillip Walker, chairman of the board of directors, said expanded routes and upgraded services, such as including WiFi on the buses, will help gain riders.

“I do believe the future direction of our bus transit service provides greater accessibility to our residents,” he said. “The proposed route changes include earlier start times and later end times to better serve our residents who use mass transportation to get to work, school, medical appointments and shopping.  Our users want modern conveniences such as WiFi, and we expect ridership to increase as we bring that technology into our buses.”

Bus Rehab Program

Always good stewards of taxpayer money, the Citrus Connection saves hundreds of thousands of dollars each year by “receiving buses from other agencies that have outlived their useful lives and complete refurbishing them into buses that will last several years and hundreds of thousands of miles,” said xx.

The transit system replaces the driver’s seat and passenger seat inserts, along with steel wheels, which are replaced with aluminum wheels, and the engine cooling system, which is replaced with a hybrid electric cooling system. It either rebuilds or replaces the engine and transmission, and inspects and repairs the brakes, steering and suspension.

It also installs a video surveillance and two-way radio system, and paints the bus to fit into the Citrus Connection fleet.