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Lack of Funding at Root of Orlando’s Failing Public Transit

The region has a $75 billion tourism industry, yet some workers can’t get to their jobs on time because city buses take up to three hours to travel 15 miles and the rail system only works on weekday rush hours.

(TNS) — Nicky Wilkins’ alarm clock sounds at 4 a.m. for her 8:30 a.m. shift as a cabana attendant at Walt Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park.

On a good day, her commute from west Orange County will take three hours each way.

She is one of the thousands of people who depend on the underfunded Lynx bus system to get to work.

Lynx, which estimates just under half of its riders work in the service industry and runs some of its busiest routes to major tourism destinations, doesn’t have enough buses to adequately cover the agency’s three-county landscape, officials say.

SunRail, the commuter rail system that started in 2014, doesn’t run on weekends, late at night or holidays, leaving some in the region’s 24/7 tourism industry to find a ride elsewhere.

Central Florida’s public transit system is failing the low-wage workers who help drive the region’s $75 billion tourism economy.

Officials acknowledge Lynx’s shortcomings, but say they can’t do more without more money.

“Is it a first-rate transportation service? No, it can’t be until it has a dedicated funding source,” said Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine, chairman of the Lynx board.

Wilkins lives those shortcomings.

Out the door just after 5 a.m., she walks to the bus stop and waits alone before dawn on an October morning. The yellow light from a streetlamp casts a glow on her blue uniform shorts at the stop on Colonial Drive in west Orange County.

When the 105 bus arrives at 5:40 a.m., she moves down the narrow aisle to the last row of seats. Many mornings, she pops in earbuds to tune out noise with upbeat gospel music.

Wilkins, 36, is legally blind and doesn’t drive. If she could, her 15-mile commute would take about 30 minutes.

She was born with impaired vision and doctors feared she could become completely blind by the time she was a teenager. Instead, she played basketball and ran track for her high school team.

She views the bus as part of a daily grind to get to a job she enjoys and where she earns $13.25 an hour.

“My thing is keep moving forward, don’t stop,” Wilkins said. “If you keep moving forward, good things will come out.”

Thirty minutes later, the bus pulls into the downtown Orlando central station as passengers rush for their transfers or take smoke breaks.

“Hey!” Wilkins said when she meets a familiar face on the platform.

It’s Alberta Perkins, a co-worker at Typhoon Lagoon. Perkins, 71, has relied on the bus for nearly all of the 18 years she has worked at Disney.

“You get used to it,” said Perkins, a no-nonsense former factory worker who survived ovarian cancer. “Some people get frustrated. That’s life. You have to deal with it.”

At 6:31 a.m., Wilkins and Perkins transfer to a second bus, a straight shot down Interstate 4 to Walt Disney World.

A construction detour in downtown Orlando confuses the bus driver who makes a wrong turn. The other passengers holler directions.

By the time the bus arrives at Disney Springs at 7:06 a.m., seven buses are lined up — except for the one Wilkins needs. It already left.

Across the street, the entrance to Typhoon Lagoon is tantalizingly close. But Disney officials don’t want employees walking across the 11-lane Buena Vista Drive for safety reasons, so Wilkins and Perkins transfer to ride two more buses.

Overhead, a sliver of the moon is still visible as the sun climbs over the horizon.

They wait for the next bus, bound for Magic Kingdom’s Transportation and Ticket Center.

On the ride, Wilkins looks down at her watch. Her eyes widen.

Her 8:30 a.m. shift starts in 40 minutes.

The missed turn in downtown Orlando and now rush hour near its peak, has cost her valuable time.

“Hey, good morning,” Wilkins says to her co-worker on her cell. “Who is the leader today? I’m going to be late.”

Wilkins maintains a calm exterior. Sometimes, at the end of a long day, she’ll call her mother back in Ohio.

The final bus is operated by Disney, not Lynx, and flashes “Heigh-Ho” on its electronic sign. The entertainment giant’s bus system is far more sophisticated than Lynx’s with a fleet of about 100 more buses for a geographic area that is 63 times smaller than Lynx’s.

Wilkins reaches Typhoon Lagoon 10 minutes before the start of her shift of hurrying food and drinks to tourists in the cabanas scattered around the park.

She and Perkins thank the driver and power walk to the park’s entrance. Wilkins clocks in one minute early.

Not Enough Buses

Each week, an estimated 1,000 people move to Central Florida.

Orlando is one of only 10 metro areas where the population jumped more than 30% since 2000 — nearly twice the national average, according to a Stateline analysis of data from the Bureau of Economy Analysis.

Yet Lynx’s bus fleet is about the same as it was 10 years ago, said interim Lynx CEO Jim Harrison.

“That’s a real challenge for our workforce commuters because it takes quite a while to get to work,” said Harrison, who says he’s heard troubling stories about passengers who commute three or four hours one way and about others who have camped in their employer’s break room overnight because it was easier than catching the bus.

Lynx operates 310 buses to cover 2,500 square miles across Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties and a sliver of Polk and Lake counties.

By comparison, Pittsburgh, which serves a metro area with about the same population as Orlando, has more than twice as many buses — 720. Las Vegas uses more buses than Lynx, 400, to cover a much smaller territory of 280 square miles.

Orange County Public Schools operate close to three times as many buses as Lynx.

And Walt Disney World uses 432 buses to service its theme parks and hotels across just 40 square miles.

The Lynx system also lacks in frequency. Just four out of 10 routes run about every 30 minutes. Nearly half of the routes run just once an hour.

“That’s ridiculous,” said landlord John Puhek, a retired Lockheed Martin employee, who owns properties in Apopka and near Universal Orlando that he rents to hospitality workers. “Can you imagine … having to go to work at Disney and having to say, ‘I had to change my baby and I missed my bus and I’m an hour late.’”

Harrison, the agency’s third CEO in five years, said the Lynx board would like to run most routes at least twice as often, but doesn’t have the money. The last chief executive resigned from Lynx earlier this year amid a $20 million budget shortfall and low employee morale. In recent years, the agency has struggled with declining ridership as gas prices dropped and SunRail added more stops.

The county commissions in Orange, Seminole and Osceola as well as Orlando and other cities in the region will contribute half of the bus system’s $149 million budget in the fiscal 2020 year, meaning about half of Lynx’s revenues are subject to the political whims of elected officials.

The other half of the bus system’s budget comes from state and federal grants, passenger fares and other sources such as advertising. In recent years, the agency has dipped into its reserve funds to make ends meet.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District, the government agency controlled by Disney, paid Lynx $343,000 this year to help fund three routes that include Walt Disney World. Those three lines accounted for 123,000 passenger trips in August, the most recent ridership figures available.

“We have cast members that rely on public transportation, and we owe it them to help find solutions that work," Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger said in a statement. She was unable to estimate how many of Disney’s 77,000 workers take public transit. "Businesses, workers and residents around Central Florida would greatly benefit from increased funding for Lynx to add more buses, more routes, and longer operating hours.”

Unite Here, the largest union of Disney workers with about 26,000 members, says nearly 2,000 workers, like Nicky Wilkins, live in the zip codes of 32808 and 32818 that cover Pine Hills and parts of west Orange County.

Wilkins, who serves as a union steward and has worked at Disney for 15 years, spends about $30 a month on a bus pass. Disney allows workers to purchase bus fares through a pre-taxed account to save money.

But people on the front lines of Orlando’s social service network say low-wage workers sometimes turn to far more expensive options such as Uber or Lyft because it’s more reliable and convenient.

“And in many cases,” said Eric Gray, of United Against Poverty Orlando. “It’s all they really have.”

Day In The Life

The No. 50 Lynx bus barrels past a series of off-brand hotels and kitschy souvenir shops on International Drive before ferrying on to Disney.

It’s a Wednesday morning in October, just before 11 a.m. and most of the passengers are lost in their thoughts, listening to music and scrolling on their phones. One man who works at a Disney restaurant stretches out across two seats, fast asleep.

From his perch at the front of the bus, driver Eddie Burgos watches over them.

He wakes his regulars when they are asleep at their stops. He doesn’t mind if he falls slightly off schedule at Magic Kingdom’s Transportation and Ticket Center. He knows to wait for an arriving bus so they can transfer to his route, a crucial link.

One rider buys him a sugar-dusted doughnut regularly as a thank you.

“He’s a good guy,” says Charles Wade, 54, a longtime bus rider who has known Burgos for years.

Burgos toots a friendly honk as Wade exits his stop on International Drive, grabs his yellow bike from the front of the bus and pedals away to his new job as a custodian at the Orange County Convention Center.

Burgos knows his job is an important one.

“I take them where they need to go.” Burgos said.

A man of strong Christian faith, Burgos says a prayer before the start of every shift in his Lynx uniform, ironed the night before. He often picks up overtime, working six days or more a week. Burgos has been on the job exactly 18 years, nine months, he said proudly.

“G’mornin’, g’mornin’,” Burgos calls out cheerfully to a family of tourists who hop on and share the bus with hospitality workers dressed in their checkered cook pants and SeaWorld polos. One woman is already wearing her hairnet for her job feeding Disney workers on their breaks at a staff cafeteria.

More buses and routes that run longer hours would help the people he serves, he said.

“I do get that a lot from passengers,” Burgos said.

Raising Taxes?

During his first state-of-the-county speech, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, a Democrat, announced a plan to fix public transit — a penny sales tax increase that he wants voters to approve next year.

The tax would generate an estimated $600 million each year that could help pay for Lynx, SunRail and other projects like roads, sidewalks and bike trails.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, also a Democrat who was just re-elected for a fifth term, said during the election that he also supported the extra-penny tax.

Similar efforts have failed in the past.

Voters in Osceola County, for example, rejected a proposed sales tax increase for transportation earlier this year. Critics said the plan lacked details and focused too much on roads instead of buses and trains, which may have gotten the attention of more voters in a community with a large portion of low-wage workers.

Orange County voters killed a similar proposal in 2003.

Demings said he hopes the message about public transportation resonates more this time around.

Sixteen years ago, SunRail was still just an idea and worsened congestion brought by today’s ongoing overhaul of I-4 was a far-off problem.

Now both are part of commuters’ daily realities.

In less than two years, the clock will run out on the state’s commitment to foot the bill for SunRail and local governments will be responsible for the $40 million tab each year. The rail system has seen mostly flat ridership levels, though stations that opened over the summer in Osceola County are off to a brisk start.

Officials worry that SunRail and Lynx will be forced to compete for limited dollars.

So Demings is already making the rounds at community centers with his pitch for an increased sales tax.

On a Thursday evening in October, he stood before a crowded gymnasium in a Winter Park community center, as supporters and opponents streamed up to the microphone.

“A penny would be fabulous. I want to applaud what’s happening here today,” said Gloria Pickar, a co-president of the Orange County League of Women Voters, who wants a dedicated funding source for public transportation. Last year her organization rated the region’s transportation system a D and chastised elected leaders for not doing more.

Not everyone was on board.

In the parking lot, a Ford’s back windshield was decorated with the words “No new taxes!!”

“I have a problem with the 1% quite frankly,” one man said when it was his turn, bringing up SunRail and Lynx’s financial problems. “I’m troubled that we’re sitting here talking about expanding this and expanding that. One thing I haven’t heard here tonight at all: How are we going to make Lynx and SunRail cost-effective? All we’re doing is throwing good money after bad money.”

In most U.S. cities, public transportation isn’t a moneymaker, Demings told him. The government subsidizes it because it’s an important service.

“The voters of Orange County in November of next year get to make a decision — whether they want to stay frozen in time, or they want to see this community grow and prosper and go to the next level and deal with the challenges that we have here,” Demings told the crowd. “If we do nothing, this is only going to get worse."

That sentiment is echoed by people in the business community who rely on workers who take the bus.

Shelly Weir, a senior vice president at the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Foundation, said an Orlando kitchen worker’s shift might start at 4:30 a.m., but the earliest bus doesn’t begin running until 5 a.m. at that stop.

She recalled a meeting earlier this year when tourism leaders met to discuss a training program for cooks at Second Harvest Food Bank. The conversation, as she said it often does, shifted to challenges workers face.

“I kid you not," Weir said. “Every single hotel property in the room said, ‘What are we going to do about public transportation?’”

©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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