The Palm Beach County Commission heard a report about the county’s Palm Tran bus service on Tuesday, Nov. 28 that presented challenges to a system that has not had significant funding increases or route changes since 1997, but serves an area that has seen a 40 percent population increase during that time, most significantly in the western communities.
Consultant Jared Walker presented options that focused on improving existing service for the short term, but Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay said she was disappointed that there was little provision to improve service in District 6, where most of the growth has occurred.
“What I do like about this plan is the increased service along Forest Hill Blvd. that hasn’t been there before, coming from Wellington and heading east,” said McKinlay, who represents District 6 on the county commission. “I also like on the map the increased routes from 60-minute to 30-minute routes out in the Glades community. What I don’t like about the plan is obvious by looking at the map that it further isolates our western communities.”
She pointed out that the Village of Royal Palm Beach, with a population of 37,000, has grown by 72 percent in the past 17 years, and it is one of the last affordable, family-friendly areas left in the county.
“[West Palm Beach] is building one-bedroom apartments that are going for $1,600 a month, so if you’re a family and you work downtown, you’re almost forced to start moving out west, so it’s also a factor of there are jobs in the western communities that people need to get to, and there are jobs in the western communities that people need to get east for, and it’s no longer that they want to live in a gated community,” she said. “When I look at this… service map, there is no service in Royal Palm Beach, no service in The Acreage, no service in Loxahatchee Groves, no service in a great portion of Wellington, and no service in the unincorporated areas out there.”
The only Palm Tran hub in the area is the Mall at Wellington Green, she noted, pointing out that her district has three hospitals — Wellington Regional, Palms West and Lakeside — that people need to get to and from.
“We’ve already got 56,000 people in The Acreage,” she said. “We’re expected to double that with the City of Westlake, and I don’t see anything in this plan that accommodates that. I’m just wondering if this is the way we’re going to continue. Are we going to give a property tax credit to those cities that have no service but are paying for it?”
Walker clarified that there is no plan, but two concepts for consideration.
“There is no advocacy of one concept or the other,” he said. “The purpose is to start a conversation. I would ask that you not call it a plan, because that implies that Palm Tran had an intention that it doesn’t have. It’s genuinely asking the question.”
“Understood,” McKinlay said. “Well, as we’re looking at this ‘concept,’ I would like us to take the western communities into more consideration than what this ‘concept’ currently shows.”
Walker said the presentation was an introduction for the commissioners to think about what they want the transit system to do, and some of the trade-offs that have to be made, working on an assumption of no budget growth.
“We want to launch a public discussion of these trade-offs that will engage a larger group of people in thinking about the choices that really have to be made,” Walker said. “I want to alert you that the trade-off, the question that you talk about, will come back at you for a decision probably in about a year.”
He explained that public transportation in Palm Beach County has mostly been about access to jobs and opportunity, and access to medical facilities and other necessities. “Over time, particularly in parts of the county that intend to grow denser and more walkable, the first two points, which tend to be a bigger factor in bigger cities, they’re probably going to come to bear here,” Walker said, citing West Palm Beach’s plans for greater density, requiring improved public transportation.
Walker explained that the purpose of the discussion was to maximize efficiency, and Palm Tran’s most efficient route currently is up and down U.S. 1, with an average of 27 rides per hour. The federally required on-demand paratransit service, with smaller vehicles for people with special needs, is much less efficient and more costly, with about one ride per hour.
“Most Palm Tran routes are in the range of 10 to 25,” Walker said.
He said the efficiency of fixed-route service is tied to the ability of people to walk out to meet the bus, and the population density along the route.
“There are many parts of this county that fixed route doesn’t serve at all because the physical environment is just not conducive to fixed-route service, and where it would be great to have alternatives, but right now we’re not seeing that,” Walker said.
Palm Tran Executive Director Clinton Forbes said the service has 623 employees, 160 fixed-route buses, 35 bus routes and 9 million trips annually. A new bus costs about $550,000. About three-quarters of the staff are bargaining unit employees, and most of the operating cost is for employees.
Budget expenses total about $67.35 million, with revenue of $29 million from grants, gas tax of $34.13 million, and ad valorem funding of $4.21 million.
Palm Tran has seen about a 31 percent decline in ridership since 2013, which Forbes said is part of a nationwide trend.
Palm Tran has undertaken a route performance initiative to evaluate the bus network design to provide options to efficiencies, usability and coverage of the bus system that will culminate in an improved system in 2019.
Palm Tran has not undergone any major changes to its route network in more than 20 years, according to the staff report. Other transport systems across the country, including Houston, Jacksonville and Columbus, have performed similar initiatives and have achieved increases in ridership and customer satisfaction.
Learn more about the service at http://discover.pbcgov.org/palmtran.