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February 2, 2007

Bus ridership increases

Tom Derzypolski

By Kim Cotton
Hometown News

FORT PIERCE - The numbers are in and last year was good for the Treasure Coast Connector.

The bus system saw an increase of nearly 50 percent in ridership in 2006 from the previous year.

Treasure Coast Connector had nearly 71,000 riders last year, up from more than 47,400 people in 2005.

"People are more aware of the system," said Marianne Arbore, transit director. "They see stops that are convenient to where they want to go."

The Treasure Coast Connector, which is operated by the St. Lucie County Council on Aging, operates four fixed routes in St. Lucie and Martin counties. The main two routes operate north and south along U.S. 1 between the two counties. The other two operate east and west in both Port St. Lucie and Fort Pierce.

The newest route is the Port St. Lucie Trolley, which started service a year ago in the downtown area.

The buses run every hour, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. It does not run on major holidays, such as Christmas or Fourth of July. The buses stop at 38 permanent stops, most of which are in St. Lucie County.

The transit system started operation in 2002, and has seen ridership increase over the years.

"As the system progresses, it comes along with more people," Ms. Arbore said. "From 2002 to today, we've seen a 2,900 percent increase."

She attributes the increase in ridership in the last year to getting the word out to residents about the system. She said transit officials initiated a marketing campaign, complete with television commercials to let residents know about the service. A month of free rides in December also boosted numbers.

"We hope to continue the free ridership program from December to let riders get to know the system," Ms. Arbore said.

The Treasure Coast Connector is funded through a St. Lucie County taxing unit, as well as grants from the federal government and the Florida Department of Transportation, Ms. Arbore said.

Bus fares also contribute to operating costs. Adults can ride for $1; children 5 to 12 years old, seniors 60 and older and disabled people can ride for 50 cents.

Because public transportation is a bargain compared to owning a car, a cross-section of people ride the buses.

"We have a diverse group of people, Ms. Arbore said. "Most ride for employment purposes, while others ride to get to medical appointments and others ride for recreation."

Joseph Thompson, 53, rides the bus daily from his home in Fort Pierce to his job at Aegis Communications in Port St. Lucie. He rides the bus for the affordability and convenience.

"It's cheap," Mr. Thompson said. "It only costs me $1 to get there, and it gets me directly there. It's wonderful and I'm happy to have it."

Jimmy Townsend, 39, from Stuart, just started riding the bus because of a suspended driver's license. He said he is pleased with his experience so far, but wishes there were more buses available at different times.

"If it wasn't for the buses, I couldn't get to Fort Pierce," Mr. Townsend said. "We need more pickup areas in Stuart. If it were a little easier to catch a bus, a lot more people wouldn't drive as much."

Ms. Arbore said officials are looking to extend bus routes to the weekends and add additional routes.

"The key is funding," she said. "If funding is available, we would like to put in service in St. Lucie West and do more in the Port St. Lucie area."

She added that with more options, residents would choose public transportation.

"It's more economical, convenient in getting people where they want to go and not deal with traffic," Ms. Arbore said.