Polk County’s population is expected to hit 1.2 million by 2050 – 300,000 more than live here now. And all those people will have to be able to get around – either in their own cars, carpooling or by public transportation.
“Polk County is a community on the rise,” said Parag Agrawal, Polk Transportation Organization Executive Director. “With significant growth also comes significant challenges.”
The PTO “works with the Florida Department of Transportation and local governments to plan and fund transportation projects that provide safe, reliable travel for all users.”
Agrawal spoke to a group of transportation-minded officials recently at a community forum, held at the new SunTrax facility in Auburndale.
“Polk County is 2,000 square miles – bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island,” he said. “It is no longer a bedroom community to Tampa and Orlando. The number of jobs expected to grow by 137,158 by 2050. The only thing growing more than our population is our traffic.”
He described Polk County’s roadways as “heavily congested” – no surprise to anyone trying to get to work on time every morning.
Agrawal pointed out that Polk County had 405,400 residents in 2000. As of July 2021, there were 753,500 residents – making Polk the fastest growing county in Florida and the seventh-fastest growing county in the United States.
But in 2021, there were 135 average annual traffic fatalities, making it the seventh most dangerous county in Florida.
Of the transportation issues for those in the room and the 4,000 people who took recent polls from the TPO show, clogged traffic on Interstate 4 topped the list.
According to the report “Polk Transit Vision 2032,” issued in December, a major overhaul for Citrus Connection, the county’s public transportation system, is overdue.
The sections of roadways in Polk County that experience the most average annual traffic (more than 20,000 daily trips) include the following:
- I-4 throughout the county
- Major roadways in and around incorporated areas such as Lakeland, Winter Haven, Haines City, Bartow, and Lake Wales
- US-27 in the northern part of the county
Park-and-ride facilities along I-4 were also identified as needed to support growth at County Line Road, Berkley Road and SR 559, which runs from Polk City through Auburndale and ending in Winter Haven.
Nearly 12,000 residents leave Polk County daily for work in Hillsborough County and approximately 12,400 Hillsborough County residents commute daily to Polk County. The top outflow destination for Polk County residents is to work in Orange County, at 21,000.
According to the report, approximately 2.3% of households in Polk County were considered zero-vehicle. Those who indicated that they use transit reported a significantly higher rate of zero-vehicle households, at 28%. In Polk County, approximately 22% of households have only one vehicle available.
The most popular commute choice for persons in Polk County continued to be driving alone (83%), an increase since 2010 from 81%. Carpooling decreased from 12% to 9%.
The majority of people who drove alone – 40% – spent 15-29 minutes commuting, while the majority of those who took public transportation – 67% – spent anywhere from half an hour to more than 45 minutes on the bus, with many spending 90 minutes.
The report’s recommended improvements are:
- US-98 – There is a strong demand to quickly connect downtown Lakeland to downtown Bartow. The Silver route, which currently connects Lakeland directly to Bartow approximately every 90 minutes, is recommended to operate seven days of the week, every 15 minutes. This corridor experiences more than 40,000 vehicles daily according to FDOT.
- Florida Avenue – There is a need to alleviate traffic on the Florida Ave corridor, which has annual average daily traffic of 30,000 or more vehicles.
- A SunRail Extension to Lakeland – Extending the SunRail into Polk County will enhance attractiveness of transit locally and significantly improve regional connectivity for Polk County’s residents and visitors. The existing alignment connects riders to locations from DeBary in Volusia County to Poinciana in Polk County. If the SunRail is extended into Polk County, the final alignment and station locations will be determined.
There is also a demand for bus service to the Poinciana SunRail station. This route would eventually connect to the Haines City SunRail station if implemented. The express route, which would operate mostly on I-4, would provide a direct and faster connection between Lakeland and SunRail services.
And people said they want a Lakeland to Tampa Express via I-4 and a Local Express on US-27 and Cypress Gardens Boulevard, from Haines City to Legoland, every 45 minutes.
Florida Department of Transportation Interim Secretary for District One John Kubler said the department has the largest proposed budget in history $4.7 billion in Moving Forward Congestion Relief. Projects include:
- The State Road 33-I-4 interchange — $197 million
- 427 to Champions Gate — $635 million
- Champions Gate to Osceola Parkway. $1.4 billion.
- U.S. 98 from West Socrum Loop Road to County Road 54
- U.S. 98 over the Peace River in Fort Meade.
“It’s a 92-year-old bridge,” Kubler said, adding that $21 million will add 12-foot lanes, 12-foot paths and eight-foot bike lanes.
Nicola Liquori Executive Director Florida Turnpike Enterprise said investments in technology are extremely important.
“Electrification is a hot topic right now – there’s going to be more EVs,” she said, referring to electric vehicles. “The adoption rate continues to increase. We need to be prepared for that.”
She said they are installing Tesla super charge stations and looking into in-motion chargers or power tracks embedded in roadways. That is especially important to truck drivers, whose electric batteries deplete quicker than electric cars.
County Manager Bill Beasley listed a number of projects that have received funding, including several roundabouts.
“Get used to roundabouts – they are in vogue, but also safer,” Beasley said, adding that most accidents happen at stop signs and red lights. “We believe them things are here to stay.”
He noted the West Pipkin widening is costing $60 million, while the widening of the Ronald Reagan Parkway to the Osceola Parkway “is the single-most expensive one mile Polk County will ever build,” with a price tag of $40 million.
Other projects include:
- Dean Still Road and Thompson Nursery Road, at a cost of $155 million, will be done in two phases.
- Kathleen Road Extension from Duff Road to Rock Ridge Road will cost $100 million.
- Power Line Road expansion – 10 Miles estimated to cost $160 million.
Agrawal praised Citrus Connection’s Executive Director Tom Phillips.
“Under the leadership of Tom Phillips, the transportation system in Polk County is progressing really well and getting stronger every day – and getting stronger every year,” Agrawal said.
Phillips called his speech to the summit “The Treading Water Presentation,” noting that he has added routes, but the cost has not increased the cost of a ride in many years.
Phillips has 200 employees and an $18 million budget. Fair share communities pay 20%, which allows Southeastern University, Polk State College, Pace Center for Girls, Polk County Schools, Peace River Center workers and residents, and Legoland employees to ride for free. There is also a partnership with the Board of County Commissioners to subsidize transportation for veterans.
“This county commission is the most pro-transportation friendly in the state of Florida,” Phillips said. “When you remove barriers to access, people will try it – 25,000 students can ride for free.”
He noted that people who can’t get to work, can’t provide much needed services to employers. He talked about how LEGOLAND’s hotel couldn’t clean its rooms on Sundays because workers couldn’t get to the hotel … because there was no bus service. Winter Haven partnered with Citrus Connection to provide bus service to its residents.
“Now it’s seven days a week – not only LEGOLAND needed it, citizens use it,” Phillips said, noting that LEGOLAND’s employees need only show their employee badge to ride the buses.
But Phillips shocked the room when he said he didn’t think Polk County was going to get a Brightline stop when the commuter rail line between Tampa and Orlando first arrives – he thought we would have to wait.
“It’s going to fundamentally change the way Polk County uses transit when Brightline starts,” Phillips said. “Park and Ride lots will be all over the county … The major challenge is how does that funding work and what is the lift? We’re the buckle – you can’t wear it without us.”
Ultimately, a new “Intermodal Center” in Lakeland is in the works. This new facility in downtown Lakeland will be located by the RP Funding Center, near the existing downtown transfer facility. It is planned to have more than 18 bus bays, a park-and-ride with 250–500 spots, access to Amtrak services, and eventual access to SunRail and/or Brightline services. The facility is estimated to cost $30 million.
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