By Samantha Joseph
MARTIN COUNTY - An expanded route, new buses, free rides and rising gas prices for motorists are among several factors boosting the popularity of Martin County's public transit system.
Riders are boarding public buses in record numbers for free rides to shopping centers, the local Indian River State College campus, the health department, attractions such as Sailfish Splash Waterpark and other stops along the route.
And passengers aboard the Treasure Coast Connector get complimentary passes when they leave Martin County buses to travel north to St. Lucie County, so the service allows free transportation to as far north as Fort Pierce. Those boarding in St. Lucie County, though, and headed south must pay the bus fee of $2 in effect in that county until they transfer to Martin County buses.
"We only have three fixed routes and just last month we reported more than 6,000 boardings, which is huge," said Claudette Mahan, associate planner in the county's engineering department. "In small county transit terms, needless to say, we're growing from what we used to do."
Adding to the increased ridership is the extension of the Connector route in the county. Fifteen new stops take buses as far south Port Salerno, instead of their former trek from the Port St. Lucie Wal-Mart at U.S. 1 and Lennard Road to Martin Memorial Hospital North.
Nearly 2,300 rode that route in June, boosting traffic at stops that formerly saw few passengers, Martin County spokeswoman Gabriella Ferraro said in a release.
Seniors from the Vista Pines community, residents of Golden Gates and Indiantown, as well as employees of businesses along the bus routes make up the majority of riders and account for the increase, county staff said.
Golden Gate resident Clara Serna rode the Martin County Transit's Treasure Coast Connector along Federal Highway to the Regency Square plaza for the first time last month to go shopping. She said she found the trip to be not only free of charge, but quick and easy, and decided to use the service again a few days later to go to the movies and has been a regular rider ever since.
"The buses were on time and fast," said Ms. Serna, who does not own a car and typically relies on her husband and family members for transportation.
Transit officials said the service's reliability and its ready availability as a free option for travel has made it attractive even to customers who don't live near the bus routes.
They said increased use of the buses' bike racks suggest passengers travel longer distances from their homes, and they also suggest rising gas prices might be driving the spike.
Last month, the Stuart route provided a record 707 trips, making stops at locations that included Lamar Howard Park in Golden Gate and the Martin County Health Department, across the street from Sailfish Splash Waterpark.
The Indiantown route is also busy with more than 3,000 trips a month.
"We've never had more than 700 riders a month on the Treasure Coast Connector (on U.S. 1)," Ms. Mahan said. "We've more than doubled that in less than a year. We've actually tripled it."
Martin County Transit buses operate from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday with the exception of holidays. For more information, visit www.martin.fl.us/portal/page?_pageid=73,4439390&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL.