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Flagler Mayors: You Call That a Transportation System?

| April 16, 2010

The P doesn't necessarily stand for parked. (© FlaglerLive)

“Dog-and-pony show.”

“Didn’t really accomplish anything.”

“They didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already.”

People “have to fill out an application to use the transportation system? Do people know that? I didn’t know that.”

“I lived here five years and seen that bus go by and never knew what it meant, you know, FC–whatever, you know, what does that mean? I had no idea.”

Those are just some of the comments the mayors of Flagler County’s five cities unleashed on the Flagler County transportation system, known around the county–when it is known at all–by its cryptic acronym: FCPT, for Flagler County Public Transportation. The mayors were gathered in the informal atmosphere of a Flagler County League of Cities meeting at Palm Coast’s City Hall on April 14, a day after attending a presentation on the transportation system produced by the county for a gathering of every local government agency. Local governments had requested the larger meeting to know more about the system as it is today and as it may, or should, evolve in the near future.

The mayors, however–collectively or individually, and at either meetings–showed little vision themselves regarding the county’s future transportation possibilities.

Held at the county’s Emergency Operations Center around a rectangular collage of folding tables, to accommodate thirty-odd elected representatives and managers, the April 13 presentation had all the stiffness of a public meeting harnessed by decorum and deference: at no point did any of the representatives around the table challenge the county’s presentation by Heidi Petito (director of the county’s general services), or that of Rob Gregg, a county-hired consultant from the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research, beyond a few clarifications.

The Flagler County League of Cities:

  • Chairman Steve Emmett, Beverly Beach mayor
  • Alice Baker, Flagler Beach mayor
  • Jim Netherton, Marineland mayor
  • Jon Netts, Palm Coast mayor
  • Catherine Robinson, Flagler Beach mayor

It was a different story around the mayors’ tables the following day. Each in turn, with the more reserved exception of Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts, criticized one aspect or another of the transportation system, finding it too expensive, too static (with no fixed routes, the system depends on riders making appointments, and filling out one-time applications ahead of time to do so), and too bloated. Mayors couldn’t understand why a transportation system with 32 employees and 29 vehicles (including 22 buses, four minivans and three passenger cars) needed three dispatchers when it had just 10 full-time drivers, two part-time drivers and 16 on-call drivers.

“Except for the wheelchair-bound people, isn’t that a taxi service? I mean, it’s point-to-point, right? I call them two weeks in advance, they come to my house, then they take me where I’m going. It’s like a taxi service, right?” Ron Vath, a Flagler County commissioner, said. “It does seem kind of ineffectual, but for what they’re doing, I don’t know how else they could do it.”

“I agree Ron,” Netts said, “that what the county is doing is probably as efficient as you can make an inefficient system, although I really would have liked more information. They’ve got 29 vehicles and 26 drivers, including all the on-call drivers. What they didn’t tell me is how many vehicles sit in the barn unused. … And the argument that well, we have to keep buses in reserve for routine maintenance–you do your routine maintenance on the weekends, folks. You don’t take them out of service to do routine maintenance. Emergency, yes.”

Those are the limitations of a transportation system set up to serve a county population of around 45,000, but serving a population double that, says Carl Laundrie, the county’s spokesman.

Until 2003, the transportation system was run as an arm of the county’s now-defunct, non-profit Senior Services agency. The agency tried a fixed-route system in 2002. The experiment lasted a few months and failed for lack of riders. In 2003, Senior Services ran out of funding. The county took over the agency’s buses to ensure that the buses would keep running. In the county’s view, it was a bail-out that otherwise would have left thousands of seniors without a way to get around. But the county hasn’t had to go it alone, either: in 2005, it received a $800,000 federal grant to replace the fleet’s aging buses and build a new administration building for the transportation system, with an eye on a fixed-route service down the road.

Much of that context wasn’t part of the county’s presentation on Wednesday. The lack of clarity may have left elected officials more confused than confident about Flagler’s transportation system.

[Citing Heidi Petito, the county’s general-services director, the News-Journal’s Frank Fernandez reported on April 19 that “a committee composed of staff from the county, the school district and cities will begin meeting April 28 to discuss future bus service,” and that the buses would run on a hybrid system combining the regular routes of a fixed network with the flexibility of deviating from that route to make special pick-ups.]

There were, in fact, two presentations. The first was about the transportation system as it is now, a so-called “pre-scheduled demand-response system” that, by the nature of its name alone, would confuse riders and officials with the best intentions. The presentation was heavy in numbers–numbers of employees, of vehicles, average age of riders (60), percent of wheelchair clients (25), or Palm Coast residents (72), number of trips last year (72,700), and so on–but lighter on context: why, for example, with so many vehicles and drivers on call, same-day service is not available, or rides must be requested “at least two days and up to one week in advance,” wasn’t clear. Nor was it clear why, with three dispatchers and variously idle drivers, and answering machines at the ready, reservations by phone could not be called in except for five hours between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekdays.

That’s with a $1.5 million annual budget.

The second presentation summed up the results of a study required by the federal government if Flagler County’s 2010 census population qualifies it for larger federal grants. Three such studies are required before qualifying. Officials heard results of the second on April 13, though despite the obligatory power-point presentation with many clever acronyms, illustrations and catchy, action-packed phrases such as “County-wide mobility plan,” “public involvement program,” and “development of strategic initiatives,” it was difficult to understand what any of it meant, beyond the jargon, for the neighbor next door who can’t get to her job for lack of a car. If anyone was hoping to leave the meeting with some idea of how the county and its cities could develop a smarter public transportation grid in the next few years, Wednesday’s meeting didn’t do it. Judging from the mayors’ reactions the following day, it left them more frustrated than empowered.

Qualifying his criticism, Netts said mayors may want to look north to St. Johns County’s transportation system, which he once visited with County Commissioner Milissa Holland when she chaired the County Commission. The pair met with Cathy Brown, director of the St. Johns County Council on Aging, where they learned that, being “out from under government”‘s aegis, the council was eligible for more grants than would be a county-controlled transportation agency, “and you can do things that a government can’t do, including fund-raising, receiving donations, and so on.”

The Council on Aging has 11 “funding partners,” including the United Way, the St. Johns County Commission, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, and the cities of St. Augustine and St. Augustine Beach. When Netts and Holland queried the council’s director as to which direction Flagler should go–if Flagler was starting from scratch–the answer was, without hesitation (but also not surprisingly, considering that Brown was touting her own agency): follow St. John’s example.

But St. Johns’ example is precisely where Flaglwer County was in 2003 when the local version of the Council on Aging collapsed, despite its being “out from under government”–and required a government bailout.

Baker, the Flagler Beach mayor, summed up the two meetings’ 100-some minutes’ focus on Flagler transportation in eight words: “I think we’re back on square one.”

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5 Responses for “Flagler Mayors: You Call That a Transportation System?”

  1. Atilla says:

    This is a fine example of how a government can spend excessive money and payroll, to accomplish a worthwhile or required goal. Just remember it is our collective money they are wasting

  2. Bob K says:

    Atilla nailed it. You’re throwing away a ton of money and what do we have? A bunch of overpaid people standing around, along with the people it’s supposed to serve. How about this?: cancel the program and allow the private sector (you know, the one with the HIGH UNEMPLOYMENT RATE) to step in and fill the void. It’s called a “taxi service.” They will be responsive to the needs of the people, charge them for the actual cost of the trip plus a reasonable profit (quite likely less than the cost of the inefficiencies inherently built in to the government program) and the people will be served. We can get rid of another bureacracy and save millions in the process. Oh, and I bet the riders won’t have to wait a week for their ride to show up.

  3. Brandi says:

    I can’t believe it. I called asking about Flagler County’s public transportation and they said you had to fill out a form and you can’t have a car parked in the yard. Which makes you ineligible to be picked up to go to work plus we are not going anywhere near Volusia because they won’t come to us. But on their websight there is a charge of $9 one way to go to Volusia. People Flagler county is growing people work outside the county and need to get to work, either they don’t have a car or they deem it necessary to not drive and use public transportation. Geeeeez. There not just elderly people in Flagler county needing a ride. There’s people like me who needs to go to work in Volusia and make the money to buy the car so she won’t have to depend on Flagler to give up the ride because they want to take your “order” to ride.

  4. palmcoaster says:

    Brandi FCPT a real joke! They gave you the run around when you called!! In my street and we are talking C section by the water front, FCT picked a young man with behavioral problems and police records all the time and his parents vehicles more than one, were parked in the driveway!
    Also I seeing the FCPT picking up a “business owner” in the Saint Joe Business Center of 4800 Palm Coast Parkway NW across from Ace Hardware. They have 29 buses, 26 “some aggressive drivers” and 3 dispatchers? For the meager service they offer? They should take the P of their logo and stop our taxes funding it! You can only get in that bus if you are an elderly or good old boy,or friend of one or and RSVP member I think. Who’s county accommodating position is forced funded by us?
    We are all being taxed for something supposed to be of public use and is not! Only in this county!! I would even say unlawful Flagler County to force us fund what we can’t use.
    None of the mayors did a thing and on top of it the county as usual wasting more of our tax dollars paying a Transportation Consultant to enlighten their dumbness.
    Just go ahead and invite a 3 private transportation business bids to serve us all for a fee no need of any more rocket scientist consultants.Have them use their investment and greens not ours. We have Daytona Votran Public Transportation that reaches almost our county line on A1A, then our transport should just serve up to that point only to transfer to Votran for Volusia County trips. Our county and cities elected ones need consultants at a rate of 1,200 or more and hour plus hours of meetings “to resolve nothing”. Are all a bunch of morons? Maybe they are the product of this lack of proper education? Or is just about the fact, that is the “other peoples monies”?

  5. Cecilia Zwanzig says:

    I have read the replies and do have some concerns that, in my opinion, are not being addressed. I am disabled and use an electric wheelchair to be more mobile. I have used FCPT since 2009 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. In that time, I have found FCPT to be a Godsend. The drivers are friendly and do their best to accommodate. They have been extremely reliable and are a great service for the money. I do not drive and their service has allowed me to be more independent. There may be abuses on the part of FCPT, but there is most definitely abuses by the consumer. For example, setting an appointment for pick-up on a certain date and then the consumer’s plans change and canceling the appointment seems too much of a bother. I ask you, isn’t that a waste of time and money for FCPT? This is but one example of consumer abuse and there are many others I am sure. Because FCPT is a government agency, blaming them for everything comes easy to the public. Consideration is the key. There are always two sides to every problem, and from the perspective of FCPT, I know that running an agency like FCPT is a huge undertaking and much needs to be considered by both the government agency and the consumer. There are problems in every organization that deals with the public. We, as the consumer, need to be willing to be constructive in our criticisms so that “we” can make it better. Let us not just complain and leave it at that. Let us offer possible solutions so that we do have a transportation system that serves us to the best of their ability.

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