Palm Beach County is betting on buses – and WLRN decided to try out some of the upgrades.
We rode county buses from Lake Worth to Delray Beach, where county dignitaries and PalmTran employees stuck their gold shovels in dirt Tuesday to mark the start of a year-plus project to build an expanded headquarters from which the county hopes to launch a next-generation fleet of buses.
The county plans to use its upgraded facility to help its case as PalmTran pursues more federal grants and funding to transition to zero-emission vehicles. The facility will be equipped to charge fully electric buses.
The $25 million expansion of the Delray facility is 90 percent paid for by federal grants
The move comes on the heels of another big transit push: Route Performance Maximization (RPM) – an effort to smooth connections between buses, extend the hours of some routes and reduce delays across the system – kicked off in September.
The route from downtown Lake Worth to 100 North Congress in Delray Beach took about 80 minutes, compared to a roughly 20 minute drive. I hopped on the 2 Southbound at Dixie Highway and 2nd Avenue, took a short walk around the corner to 1st Street, and transferred to the 81 Westbound, which got me about a third of a mile from my final destination.
I spent a little less than an hour riding the bus, and the rest of the time either walking to or waiting at my bus stops. At $2 per bus, it didn’t cost me any less than I would have paid for gas – but I have a car, while many transit riders don’t.
PalmTran did a couple things well: My buses all showed up within 4 minutes of when they were scheduled, which beats my usual margin of error when grappling with South Florida traffic. And the distances I had to walk to get to my bus stop, and then from my last stop to my final destination, were both about a third of a mile – manageable, at least for a young and fully mobile person like myself.
PalmTran has been trying to lure customers of ridesharing apps like Uber to county buses with a few bells and whistles – I was able to track my buses’ arrival on the MyStop Mobile app, and double-check my route on Google Maps using the buses’ free Wi-Fi. None of my buses had USB charging ports, but PalmTran spokesman Joe Harrington said newer additions to the county bus fleet do.
If PalmTran’s grand vision for its new Delray Beach headquarters comes to fruition, I could be making that bus trip on fully electric buses within the next five years or so.
In the meantime, PalmTran leaders are happy to see ridership holding fairly steady in the face of a nationwide transit ridership decline. PalmTran executive director Clinton Forbes says the transit agency “put a tourniquet” on losing ridership. He credits that to a mix of the things PalmTran can control – the aforementioned route improvements and Wi-Fi – and the things it can’t, like high gas prices discouraging driving and high participation in the workforce leading to more people needing a way to get to work.
Still, Palm Beach County sees room to grow. County Commissioner Richard Weinroth pointed out that the area hosts a lot of transplants from the Northeast, where taking city trains and buses is the norm. But once they get to South Florida, he said, “we forget all that and just stay in our private passenger vehicles.”
When the new Delray Beach facility is completed in late 2020, employees currently working at the West Palm Beach office will move down. Harrington said the plan is to feed any money saved by consolidating everyone under one roof back into the system, to extend hours for some bus lines or run them along some routes more often.