The Citrus Connection is dropping its rule requiring passengers to wear masks while on its buses and other vehicles. It is also preparing to introduce a downtown Lakeland circulator bus route.

On the heels of a federal court ruling striking down the federal mask mandate on public transportation, Citrus Connection leaders say passengers can wear masks if they choose but they will no longer be required to wear them; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend passengers wear masks while riding public transit.

The judicial ruling was handed down Monday by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, a 35-year-old Lakeland native.

Many — but not all — airlines and transit services have removed mask requirements in the wake of Mizelle’s ruling.

Citrus Connection is also developing a downtown Lakeland circulator route, in an effort to speed up other routes that traverse the city. The circulator route will allow passengers to travel across downtown Lakeland without having to transfer to other buses, according to Citrus Connection Executive Director Tom Phillips.

The new service is expected to begin Oct.1 and will run Monday-Saturday, he said.

A tentative route map and schedule. View a larger version.

The agency will host public workshops this summer to seek input on the route’s exact stop locations before implementation, Phillips said.

“The downtown circulator, if as successful as our last two routes downtown, the Peach Line and The Squeeze, gives downtown the transit it deserves for our current and planned density,” Phillips said.

Downtown stops “will not be eliminated, only serviced differently,” he said.

Other Lakeland routes will see fewer stops downtown, allowing for the buses to head quickly to their areas of service. Citrus Connection officials believe it will improve the rider experience.

These maps show how the addition of the downtown circulator could affect other routes. Citrus Connection officials stress that the routes have not received final approval yet:

“We took meandering routes and made it more efficient,” said James Phillips in a YouTube video created by Citrus Connection staff. “By freeing up those bus stops that are close to the terminal, all of our routes can leave the terminal on an express system and get to where they need to go in a more rapid fashion.”

The creation of the circulator route has freed up funds, allowing Citrus Connection to give its drivers a raise, helping with staff retention. “By making the routes more efficient, we can close out the open driver positions and we can use those savings to pay everyone more,” James Phillips said.

If approved by the bus drivers’ union, drivers who’ve been with Citrus Connection for up to three years will see their pay increase to $18/hour. Those who have been with Citrus Connection between four and nine years will see their pay increase to $21/hour, and drivers who’ve been with Citrus Connection for 10 years or more will see their pay increase to $24/hour.

“The driver raises are the biggest deal since we joined the Florida Retirement System in 2015, thanks to our partnership with the Polk County Board of County Commissioners. Buses can’t run without drivers and these wages are competitive and responsible,” Tom Phillips explained, also mentioning the agency has had staffing shortages in excess of 20 openings for several years.

Citrus Connection is also considering bringing back the lunchtime version of The Squeeze, its downtown shuttle using eight-person golf carts. The Squeeze currently operates on Fridays and Saturdays from 4-11 p.m.

It initially offered service during lunch and evening hours but has since been reduced to evening hours due to previous low ridership during lunch time.

“The Citrus Connection felt it was wiser for the taxpayers’ dollars to shift the operational focus on the evening service that is still averaging over 100 rides a weekend. If the lunch service comes back, we will utilize a different route that will still provide the service as efficiently as possible,” Tom Phillips explained.

According to Julie Townsend of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, which partners with the Citrus Connection on The Squeeze, a new lunchtime schedule would include a designated parking lot to eliminate confusion about where people should park if they want to drive downtown to use The Squeeze.

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Stephanie Claytor has been a broadcast and digital journalist in Lakeland since 2016, covering Polk County for Bay News 9 and currently free-lancing for LkldNow. She is an author of travel and children's books.

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