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Proposed Transit Authority moves to research phase

By Staff | Nov 15, 2008

By DREW WINCHESTER, dwinchester@breezenewspapers.com

A light rail train system, hybrid LeeTran buses, maybe even a ferry that connects various waterfront communities, may all be in the cards for Lee County’s mass transit future, if a county-wide Transit Authority has anything to say about it.

Given the go ahead by county commissioners earlier this month, the proposed Transit Authority now moves into a “research” phase, in which county officials will discuss funding sources and seek public input.

“We’re looking at some things in a long- range plan, but more specifically we’re looking for improvement in the immediate future,” said Don Scott, director of the county Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization began discussing the prospect of a transit authority five years ago, according to Scott, but getting the various municipalities on the same page has proved difficult in the past.

Commissioner Bob Janes has long been a proponent of mass transit, saying that planning for travel needs in Lee County is necessary for the future.

He said that Lee and Collier counties are sorely behind the times in the realm of mass transit, but will be able to catch up if they act quickly.

When asked why Lee was behind, Janes speculated that the county’s population exploded much quicker than anyone could have anticipated.

“Thirty years ago the situation was different, no one imagined the rapid growth pace we’ve found ourselves in,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out where we are, and the steps that need to be taken.”

Light rail trains and ferrys are far in Lee’s future, if not far fetched, at this point in the transit authority’s life span.

Scott predicted a 20-year time frame before trains or boats become part of daily life in Lee county, saying instead that “high service” and express bus routes would be a logical place to start.

“Instead of a bus coming by every hour, they would come by every 10, 15, maybe 20 minutes,” he said. “Twenty years from now it could be different, but you just don’t go from a bus system to a rail system.”

Should a transit authority become a reality, undoubtedly the residents of Lee County would find themselves paying another tax — possibly an increased sales tax — to fund the fledgling board.

If Lee voters decide to take that route, predicted to come about in 2010, legislation formed by the charter would determine who sits on the board, though it would probably feature representatives from each municipality.

A lot needs to occur before voters find themselves in that position, however.

“Part of the issue with the time it’s taken to get to the first step is because not every part of the county is looking for the same service,” Scott said.