By Donald Rodrigue
For Hometown News
MARTIN COUNTY -- The Martin Metropolitan Planning Organization debated the future of public transportation in Martin County before voting in late June to send the matter to the county commission for further discussion.
Consultants from the Ty Lin International Group spoke to board members June 23 about their findings from the update of the county transit development plan. Martin County must update its plan every five years in order to continue receiving state block grant funds for mass transit.
Ty Lin International Vice President Joseph Yesbeck emphasized to MPO board members that the county's population was aging and increasingly becoming more dependent on public transportation services.
"There seems to be a strong demand for transit due to increase of ridership over the last few years," Mr. Yesbeck said. "A large percentage of the population is transit dependent, which is people under 18 and people who tend to not own a car and rely on other means to get around."
After interviewing Martin County public transit users and other stakeholders, Mr. Yesbeck and his staff drafted five transit development plan goals: transit service quality, transit service efficiency and effectiveness, transit ridership, branding marketing and public awareness and intergovernmental coordination.
The top concerns among those interviewed by Mr. Yesbeck and his team were the lack of bus shelters and weekend bus service. Others requested new routes to Hobe Sound, Palm City and Hutchinson Island. Three bus routes currently operate in the Martin County, one servicing the city of Stuart, one connecting Stuart to Indiantown and the Treasure Coast Connector that provides service northward through St. Lucie County. These operate from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
According to the results of Ty Lin International Group's research, the county's mass transit has an annual operating cost of $478,000 and ridership of 33,800, both of which are expected to gradually increase over the next few years even with no changes to the system. Mr. Yesbeck offered board members several options: keeping the system at its currently parameters; expanding the service hours to either 6 or 7 p.m. and/or adding weekend service; and transforming the county's arrangement of independent bus routes to the hub and spoke system used in many metropolitan areas.
The research confirmed that the hub and spoke system would be the most expensive for the county, rising to a cost of $1,875,000 by 2023. It would also be the most cost-effective system, with the lowest cost per passenger trip.
"Of course the hub and spoke system is the most costly because you're adding the new routes," Mr. Yesbeck said. "But it's also increasing the usage and the efficiency of the system."
Board member Doug Smith compared Martin County's transit systems to those he has studied in both North Carolina and Utah. Mr. Smith thinks the county might want to consider financing public transit, like Park City, Utah, with "sales tax and tourism dollars."
"If we want to truly have a public transit system for the everyday person, then what does the funding look like for that?" he asked.
Mr. Smith expressed concern because Martin County's current method of receiving transit funds was linked to the St. Lucie County urbanized area.
"I think of one of the biggest things that is hamstringing us is that we are lumped into the UZA," he said. "This has nothing to do with St. Lucie County other than the fact that our funding strategy is significantly hampered in terms of what we can apply for as a smaller county."
One of Mr. Yesbeck's primary concerns was the county's lack of branding and public awareness for its current routes.
"People just don't know it's out there," he said, referring to the county's public transportation vehicles. "They don't even recognize that the vehicles out here are the transit service."
According to Mr. Yesbeck's figures, the Martin County transit system will begin to incur budget deficits over the next few years even without any changes due to some expiring transportation grants. That deficit could grow to about $1 million by 2023.
MPO Chairman Tom Bausch asked the consultant about the possibility of both increasing the $1.50 bus fares and utilizing advertising revenue from ads on the buses to help with financing. Mr. Yesbeck agreed that ad revenue is a potential revenue source, but he cautioned the board against a fare increase, reminding them that the county's mass transit used to be free.
"When the transit fare was introduced, it caused about a 50 percent drop in ridership," he said.
Chairman Bausch concurred with Mr. Yesbeck and his staff about Martin County's need to bring more visibility to transit.
"I hope, as far as this branding, people listen to you and you do a good selling job when you go to the county commission," he said.
The Martin County Commission will discuss the updated transit development plan at 2 p.m. July 15.