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4 cities plan to offer 'FlexBus' service at SunRail stations without Lynx

Experimental system would offer on-demand service

By David Breen, Orlando Sentinel

7:09 PM EDT, May 21, 2013

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After a falling out with Lynx, four Central Florida cities plan to put together their own on-demand shuttle service to take passengers to and from SunRail stations.

City officials in Maitland, Altamonte Springs, Casselberry and Longwood have agreed to have a private company run the service to be known as FlexBus.

Although Lynx plans to provide regular bus service at stations, FlexBus is aimed at people who don't usually use buses, and it wouldn't have fixed routes or schedules. In theory, it would allow riders to summon a bus or van — by computer or smartphone or at a station kiosk — to their location within 12 minutes. The cities see the experimental system as critical to the success of SunRail because stops are not all close to major employment and shopping destinations.

Maitland, Altamonte and Longwood will have stops along the SunRail route, and Casselberry residents are expected to use a mix of all three stops. SunRail is scheduled to start operating throughout metro Orlando in May 2014.

After working with the cities on the concept for more than a year, Lynx said in April that it had never intended to run the FlexBus system but planned to use the on-demand technology it developed for its NeighborLink service. NeighborLink serves less-populated areas of Central Florida and now requires riders to call two hours in advance to schedule a pickup.

That prompted recriminations from local officials, who accused Lynx of backing out at the last minute. Since then, the cities have decided to look at other options.

"If Lynx isn't going to do it, then we're willing to step in and do it," said Sheryl Bower, Longwood's community services development director.

"We're going to give it our best shot," added Maitland Mayor Howard Schieferdecker, saying the service was vital to SunRail's prospects in his city. He expects many employees at Maitland Center to use the train, and they'll need dependable options to get from the Maitland station to the office park west of downtown on Maitland Boulevard.

Without it, "I think there's no question it'll fail," he said. "I think a lot of SunRail, but you have to have transportation to and from the station or it's not going to work. To get people to get out of their cars and ride the train, it's going to have to be convenient."

FlexBus passengers would be able to pay fares by credit card, though prices haven't been set.

Louis Rotundo, transportation lobbyist for Maitland, said the cities will ask the Florida Department of Transportation this week for funding of a yearlong demonstration, and cities will ask local and national transportation companies to submit proposals for running the system.

He expects the cities to contribute $780,000 and FDOT to contribute another $780,000 toward the operation and maintenance of the system during the one-year trial.

Lynx has received $3.5 million in Federal Transit Administration grants over the past several years toward the technology behind FlexBus, and Lewis said the company remains committed to developing it.

It's a tall order, said Lewis, who called the on-demand dispatching idea "equivalent to putting a man on the moon, from a transit perspective."

Lewis said that if the process is successful, Lynx would use the technology for NeighborLink and share it with the cities for use on FlexBus.

The cities hope that FlexBus will be up and running before the start of SunRail service, to work out any kinks.

"We have to make sure it works and works cleanly," Rotundo said. "The worst thing that would happen is to have people at Maitland Center, or at Florida Hospital, waiting for a ride and nothing shows up."

Lewis said the FlexBus concept predates SunRail and that the commuter-rail service will succeed with or without it.

"We have a plan that will provide bus service to every SunRail station when that first train arrives," Lewis said, adding that car pools and van pools will be important too. "No one option is going to make or break SunRail."

dbreen@tribune.com