Like everyone, Citrus Connection has been adjusting to COVID-19, changing its service to adhere to strict guidelines and even handing out 30,000 masks at its Lakeland and Winter Haven terminals. Even though it has had to reduce service when the virus surged, it’s planning its expansion.

The county’s mass transit system rolled out four initiatives that it’s working to implement in a county with an estimated 725,000 people. David Walters, marketing and communications manager for Citrus Connection, outlined the initiatives:

  • Saturday service along four routes in Lakeland.
  • The first east-west connector service from Mulberry to Bartow Lake Wales along State Road 60 (without having to go to the Lakeland terminal).
  • New routes in fast-growing East Polk.
  • A maintenance facility in Winter Haven.

“This expansion allows citizens throughout the county to have the most connection and transportation flexibility ever offered,” said Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz, a member of Citrus Connection’s board of directors. “From Bowling Green to Poinciana and from Lakeland to Lake Wales, they will be connected and can utilize services of other cities without owning their own transportation. It is exciting to see how this utilization rate will grow during the next three years of its funding. This will give us plenty of time to evaluate the need for future plans.”

Citrus Connection Executive Director Tom Phillips said improving transit is critical to connecting people and communities with everything there is to offer in Polk County. “It also provides critical mobility and independence to those who need it most. It affords everyone an opportunity to participate in life beyond the walls of their home.”

The Citrus Connection’s budget for 2019-2020 was $11 million. It receives money from property taxes, grants, contracts and passenger fares. Cash fares range from 75 cents to $2; children 7 and under ride free with an adult. Day passes range from $1.50 to $3; unlimited ride weekly passes cost $12, and a monthly pass costs $47.

In 2019, 775,000 trips were taken in the Lakeland area and 386,000 in East Polk.

“Our biggest challenge of providing more with less is actually our most powerful strength. Making the best use of taxpayers’ dollars is something our team prides itself on every day,” Phillips said. “Putting the best service on the street for the residents of Polk County while operating within our means is the key to our success.”

Saturday Service

The bus service used to provide Saturday service. But when it had to reduce costs after Polk County residents failed to approve a 2014 referendum that would have helped fund the Citrus Connection, that service was cut by 80%.

Now, that’s changing. “Saturday service has always been critical to passengers who need to reach employment, shopping, possible medical appointments and other quality-of-life-related trips,” Walters said.

Now, it’s being added back to the Blue, Yellow, Orange and Green Lines that service areas that include Polk State College to the south and Lakeland Square to the north.

East Polk Service

The Citrus Connection is expanding service in East Polk County, using the free Park and Ride Facility in Posner Park, just north of Haines City in Davenport, as a transit hub.

“The U.S. 27 corridor and the Scenic Highway 17 area are critical arteries connecting the communities of The Ridge to one another and to the exploding growth in Northeast Polk,” Walters said. “Posner Park is a major employment center and retail hub that attracts thousands of people daily. The Park and Ride Facility, which is free of charge, is an excellent central location to serve as a super stop.”

Riders will see three new and enhanced routes — 8X, 19X and 20X, Walters said. The details:

  • 18X will run from Posner Park to U.S. 192.
  • 19X will provide a new service to and from Posner Park to the Poinciana SunRail Station.
  • 20X will connect Haines City and Davenport to various areas along U.S. 27 and U.S. 17 on the way to and from Posner Park.

Maintenance Facility

To reduce “deadhead” time — when a bus is rolling but not collecting passengers and fares — the Citrus Connection is opening a repair facility in Winter Haven. The center will employ two full-time positions and one part-time position at an average wage of $22.50 per hour, or about $47,000 per year.

East-West Connector

The first service along U.S. 60 from Mulberry to Bartow to Lake Wales eliminates the need for passengers who board at the Walmart in Mulberry to go to the Lakeland Downtown Terminal and then transfer to the Silver Line to Bartow.

That service, along with the other enhanced and new routes, will improve residents’ access to retail, doctors and medical clinics, and more.

“All businesses along the expanded routes could see a benefit,” Walter said. “We hope to move passengers on Saturdays to hundreds of retail stores, supermarkets, recreational options and other destinations that ultimately improve their quality of life.’