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Transit In Parks Program gives update on alternatives being considered

By Staff | Feb 2, 2011

During last Wednesday's meeting to discuss the progress made with the Transit In Parks Program, David Baxter addresses the crowd at the Sanibel Community House.

More than 120 concerned citizens gathered at the Sanibel Community House last Wednesday evening to hear an update on the Alternative Transportation in Parks and Public Lands Program (ATPPL) study, recently renamed the Paul S. Sarbanes Transit In Parks Program.

Led by project manager David Baxter, the two-hour meeting featured a gallery of preliminary maps detailing proposed circulator (bus) routes — within the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a several other Sanibel and Captiva destinations and potential off-island sites — a PowerPoint presentation of why the project was undertaken and guest speakers, including Toni Westland, Supervisory Ranger at the Refuge.

“With this project, we are trying to find a way to improve transportation through the Refuge,” said Baxter, who reiterated that the focus of the study is not to provide connectivity with the mainland.

Since the project was launched in March 2008, some of the common transportation themes drawn from public input included motorized, non-motorized and waterborne transport options — including diesel-fueled buses, hybrid buses, electric-powered buses, water taxis, trams and bicycles — as well as a desire for better congestion management.

“I’d like to stress the word ‘draft’ here, because nothing has been agreed to yet,” he explained. “And the public will have input on this project until the ink is dry on the final contract.”

According to Baxter, the Transit In Parks Program is designed to assist national parks and public lands in managing their visitation while meeting the primary goal of providing sanctuary habitats for various wildlife. The program has four primary goals:

• Conserve natural, historical and cultural resources

• Reduce congestion and pollution

• Improve visitor mobility and accessibility

• Enhance the visitor experience

The first phase of the proposed “Institutional Loop,” Baxter noted during his presentation, includes a circulator element that would bring visitors to the Refuge to four other Sanibel locations, including Tarpon Bay Explorers, the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, CROW and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

If this phase, which would be tested “over two seasons,” Baxter estimated, routes could be expanded to other destinations on Sanibel and Captiva. However, he was adamant that the circulators would not travel to any of the island’s beaches.

During the meeting, four different vehicle options were discussed, including diesel, compressed natural gas, hybrid and electric buses. Of the four, study partners have considered eliminating the natural gas and electric versions, the latter of which is likely too expensive.

“They’re great if you’ve got $750,000 lying around, and are patient enough to wait around for two days while they’re being recharged,” he said, stopping short of completely ruling the electric bus option. A hybrid battery-diesel bus, Baxter explained, offers lower fuel emissions.

Whatever option is chosen, he emphasized, must have a viable technology and would be affordable to operate and maintain. “If not,” he added, then this is dead in the water.

Opening the floor to questions and comments, resident Tom Benedictis asked what the real goal of the study was, suggesting that the project partners — LeeTran, the City of Sanibel, Federal Transit Administration, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Wildlife Refuge System — remember the initial purpose of the Refuge.

Fellow islander Bob Holder also suggested that there was a fundamental inconsistency with the project: is their mission to move people in and around the Refuge, or better protect the wildlife within it? The greater need was to motivate people visiting “Ding” to get out of their cars and use mass transit circulators.

“The logic behind this is suspect,” he said. “My instincts tell me that we’re heading down the wrong path.

After several other speakers challenged the need to implement any form of transportation alternatives within the Refuge or on the island, former mayor Louise Johnson added, “I know you’re working hard to meet your goals, but I’m not sure your goals are the same as ours, the residents of Sanibel.

The next Transit In Parks Program meeting will be held in March, with a date and location still to be determined.

As one of the most visited refuges in the system, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge experiences high traffic volumes. This study is designed to explore appropriate and environmentally sensitive solutions for managing the volume of visitors and their transportation needs in order to achieve an appropriate balance between an enjoyable visitor experience and the potential resultant disturbance of wildlife.

For additional information or to submit comments or ideas, visit the project website at www.dingdarlingtransportation.com.