The Ledger (Lakeland)
January 16, 2008
Government and social services leaders say buses are vital to many
J.R. Harding, chairman of the Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged, spoke during the Transportation Summit on Tuesday at the Polk Community College/University of South Florida Lakeland campus. About 100 people from government and social services agencies attended the summit.
Tired of mass transit in Polk County being ignored or relegated to cash-strapped programs, about 100 people from government and social services agencies met Tuesday to learn what programs are available and discuss how to improve them.
What was billed as a transportation summit is one of the first steps toward developing an expanded countywide transit authority.
Tops on the list of suggestions:
Extended hours to let people who work late use regular bus transportation.
More advocacy to show people the need for mass transit and the advantages of using it.
Getting employers involved in the effort to have employees use existing and future transportation methods.
Simpler eligibility forms to let people with disabilities or low incomes qualify for special transportation assistance.
Innovative solutions such as vans that pick people up in neighborhoods and take them to larger bus pick-up sites.
Programs for volunteer drivers, who would use automobiles or vans to supplement the mass transit system.
Rebecca Leng, orientation and mobility instructor at the Lighthouse for the Blind, was one of the most vocal about the difficulties people with handicaps face to qualify for programs intended to help them get bus transportation.
“Many people are very overwhelmed by the information they have to produce,” Leng said.
She and other area residents, echoing national and state speakers from earlier in the day, said the problems of mass transit go beyond simply adding more buses. They delve into how housing developments are designed, lack of awareness of the benefits of using mass transit and the need for a united countywide effort to promote it.
“I work with the blind,” Leng said. “A lot of the time, they cannot access bus stops because there are no sidewalks to walk on.”
Joe Murray, the local veterans employment representative for Polk Works, emphasized the need for extended hours for the county’s bus services and the need to involve employers. Employers need to be encouraged to provide bus passes as benefits to their lower-paid employees, he said, adding, “If you have an $8 an hour job, how are you going to afford $30 or $40 for a bus pass?”
No one disagreed that cities countywide, particularly in East Polk, which has little or no mass transit, need more public transportation.
Their comments didn’t fall on deaf ears.
Jo Ann Hutchinson, a United We Ride ambassador for the Community Transportation Association of America, is compiling the recommendations and the local statistics presented. County officials will review them. Members of agencies involved in Tuesday’s summit will be called back to work further on solutions, said Paul Simmons, who directs Polk County’s transit services division.
The county will need to change its approach to planning and development to avoid making the transportation problem worse, said Tom Deardorff, director of growth management for Polk County. “Too often, transit is an afterthought,” he said.
Robin Williams Adams
LEDGER STAFF WRITER