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Officials working to get proposed county transit authority rolling

By Staff | May 31, 2008

With the county facing a budget crisis, the county’s transit system is faced with service cuts at a time when residents are looking for alternatives to paying $4 a gallon for gasoline.

“Gas is not getting any cheaper, and for some, (mass transit) is becoming even more of a need,” said Metropolitan Planning Organization Director Don Scott.

Fuel prices alone will be responsible for a number of service cuts if LeeTran’s budget remains the same as it is this year as a larger chunk of the $10.4 million it receives from the county’s general fund will go to pay the tab at the pump.

Representatives from the transit department and the Metropolitan Planning Organization are now stepping up efforts to craft a countywide transit authority, which would have its own funding source or sources.

For the last two years, a subcommittee has worked on interlocal agreement drafts and in just the past two months, both Fort Myers and Bonita Springs have signed off on the deal. Scott and county grants analyst Carmen Monroy will bring the pitch to the Cape Coral City Council at a workshop on Monday and possibly a full vote on June 9.

“If we want to address the future growth, we don’t have a choice,” said Scott. “If we grow the way we are projected to grow, we don’t have any other option.”

While residents across Lee County are looking for a way to escape the pain at the pump, there does not appear to be a huge spike in demand for the bus system. Monroy said the service needs to be more dependable before it becomes a hot ticket.

“If you can rely on a bus every 15 minutes, you are more apt to use it than if you have to wait 1 to 2 hours,” she said.

But flat demand makes the authority a tough sell as it is planning for growth over the next 20 years, and seeking additional funding sources without public outcry insisting that it needs more transportation options. As it is, LeeTran sees about 3 million trips on its bus and trolley lines every year.

“A transit authority would be a very good idea,” said Councilmember Dolores Bertolini. “We’ll need the mass transit to really give us an alternative to get from point A to point B.”

With a transit authority in place, bus lines could be expanded and more readily available for customers. Monroy said the first piece of business for the authority would be improving its existing service and slashing wait times. Preliminary plans also show expanded runs across Cape Coral as well as water taxi services to some of the islands and express routes connecting the county to its neighbors to the north, south and east.

“If we’re going to have a transit system and expand the transit system, it’s probably better handled within an entity that has its own funding mechanisms,” said county commissioner Tammy Hall, who has been working on the plan over the last several years. “(Transit) is an urban necessity if you are going to have an integrated community.”

That funding source could be a 1/3 cent sales tax, which would raise more than $30 million a year.

The current annual budget is just over $22 million. If all Lee County municipalities sign off on the interlocal agreement, the county commission would have to decide whether to float a referendum for the 2010 election cycle that would allow voters to decide on the new tax.

Hall pointed out that she hears constant clamoring over property taxes, and a new sales tax would allow the general fund to be slashed. She added that many who use the bus system do not pay ad valorem taxes; the creation of a transit authority could find the “most equitable way to balance the cost” of mass transit with emphasis on those who actually use the system.Aside from the cities agreeing to terms and the county placing the referendum on the ballot, even more hurdles are yet to be jumped. Due to state statute, the Florida legislature would have to sign off on a bill that would allow the authority to be created. A provisional timeline has that bill being signed in to law by May 2010, just in time for the November referendum.

Bertolini sees Monday’s decision as one that will be difficult for Cape’s elected officials, especially if Scott and Monroy ask for a financial contribution.

“Promising support has a monetary component,” she said. “With the economic downturn this will become harder and harder to do.”

But as a long-term solution, Bertolini believes that the authority is absolutely necessary.

“The concept is a good one. Is it too early? I don’t think so. It’s not too early to start discussing it.”