The Royal Palm Beach Village Council meeting on Thursday, Oct. 19 was highlighted by a presentation from Clinton Forbes, the executive director of Palm Beach County’s public transportation service, Palm Tran.
Forbes shared new plans for Palm Tran’s development throughout the county, with a focus on Royal Palm Beach.
“We are delighted to present to you some of our new strategies that we’re implementing around the county, and Royal Palm Beach will be one of the first municipalities that will benefit from this,” Forbes said. “We provide access to opportunities for everyone.”
He went on to explain that the pillars that shape Palm Tran’s service are safety, efficiency and great customer service. “What we are talking about this evening is that second pillar, how are we maximizing the tax dollars,” Forbes said.
Palm Tran offers three modes of transit: a fixed-route bus service with approximately 10 million rides around the county each year; paratransit vehicles that provide about one million rides; and mobility-on-demand, which serves roughly 120,000 rides. The fixed route that serves Palm Beach State College in Loxahatchee Groves, Palms West Hospital and the Mall at Wellington Green is Route 52.
“Our proposal is to eliminate Route 52,” he said. “Route 52 is our lowest-performing route based on the number of customers riding.”
The route carries an average of between 12 and 15 riders per hour.
“So, as I say in this business, we are carrying air conditioning on this route,” Forbes said, explaining that Palm Tran would eliminate the route and replace it with a transport company network (TCN) voucher pilot program. “What will happen here is this community will essentially emerge with a better option of mobility than it currently has.”
The cost to run Route 52 is about $1 million annually, and the new proposal would cost $150,000 to $200,000 per year. Palm Tran is also looking to eliminate Route 21 in Riviera Beach to save a combined $2.4 million.
Another local route will remain with some changes.
“Route 40 is a lifeline route that traverses from the western communities [from the Glades] to State Road 80, the mall and east on Southern. We don’t get any rides between [State Road 7] and downtown West Palm Beach. We will bypass Southern and go north to Okeechobee and go downtown,” Forbes said.
The second part of the presentation introduced a voucher program that will be piloted in Royal Palm Beach before being implemented in about 10 other areas around the county. They will not remove the existing bus stops but will geocode them for use in the TCN portion of the program. These changes are scheduled to begin in January 2024 pending board approval later this month.
Riders will be able to use the Palm Tran app to call a taxi or rideshare service such as Uber or Lyft to their door instead of walking or biking to a bus stop. Each voucher involves an $8 subsidy if used within a specified zone. Forbes provided a specific example.
“If the customer trip exceeds the subsidy within the zone, the customer will be responsible for the difference. So, if the customer wants to go five miles, and let’s say that trip comes to $12, they’ll pay the $2 copay. We will subsidize the $8 with the voucher, and then the customer will pay the additional $2 for the extended trip,” he said. “If customers do not have a smartphone or require an ADA vehicle, we still have to make accommodations for that. ADA-accessible taxis are deployed by telephone.”
Forbes said that Palm Tran brings in about $11 million each year in money from riders, but has an operating budget of $138 million, with the rest of the revenue made up from various grants, tax revenue and other funding sources.
For elderly and disabled individuals, the Connection Efficiency Project (CEP) was a door-to-door service that began in 2019 but grew too quickly to maintain.
“It is very difficult once you provide this service to the entire county to now roll this back, but it is growing at an unsustainable rate,” Forbes said. “It is something that needs to be addressed. It was always meant to be a safety net; it was not meant to be the primary transport support for those with disabilities. We are trying in a very sensitive way, a very graceful way, a very strategic way, to change this model.”
Councilwoman Selena Samios voiced concerns about minors who currently use the bus from school after late extracurricular activities getting into a rideshare vehicle, and Forbes assured her that choosing the taxi option instead would guarantee that the drivers were regularly screened.
Mayor Fred Pinto hopes that the changes will make Palm Tran’s service better and more useful to the community. “I’ve made many comments about this strategy for the last at least two years of trying to create a more robust, more useful public transportation capability. What you are proposing is very similar to what I was envisioning that needed to be done,” Pinto said. “It may take 20 years to really create a robust public transportation capability. I look at this as the first steps in that journey.”
In other business, Royal Palm Beach resident Stephen Panse brought up an issue with trying to obtain a permit to park his converted boat trailer at the village’s storage area.
Village Attorney Keith Davis explained that the agreements with both FPL and the church, which originally provided the property, must be reviewed, but the council seemed to agree that a traditional storage trailer — even though it was retrofitted to hold a kayak and equipment — did not adhere to the rules for storage at that site.
Panse said that he is currently paying far more to store the trailer at a different facility, and that his homeowners’ association will not allow the trailer on his personal property. The council members said they understood his concerns but were also not comfortable putting the village in a potential breach of the agreement.