Aug. 07--SunRail has transformed some once-sleepy train stations into hives of activity during the morning and evening rush hours.
Maitland isn't one of those.
According to July ridership numbers from SunRail, the Maitland station had 3,172 passengers, the second-lowest total on the 12-station commuter line. (Only the Orlando Health/Amtrak station, which was expected to draw bigger numbers because of its proximity to Orlando Regional Medical Center, fared worse.)
By comparison, neighboring Winter Park had the highest ridership numbers for the month, at 19,691.
The Maitland station's poor ridership doesn't come as a surprise to city officials. They have long known that a lack of access to the Maitland Center office park, the city's major employment hub, would keep riders away. The park, where an estimated 10,000 people work, is about a 3-mile drive away from the station, on the west side of Interstate 4. But it might as well be 30 miles for would-be train riders.
"There's [Lynx] service, but it takes over an hour," Maitland Mayor Howard Schieferdecker said. "You have to go to Winter Park Village first, disembark there, get on another bus, and then go to Maitland Center.
"They've got to be there quickly or they're not going to ride SunRail. These are businesspeople," Schieferdecker added. "That's why our station has some of the lowest ridership numbers."
Now the city, along with FDOT, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, has been working with Lynx to secure a four-month pilot program that would provide Lynx NeighborLink vans to shuttle SunRail riders to Maitland Center.
Schieferdecker said he expects the program, which will involve hourly shuttles to the office park during morning and evening rush hours, to begin Sept. 1.
"We're going to keep track of ridership numbers and look at making a permanent route of it, which is what we need," he said.
But Lynx spokesman Matt Friedman said a key component of the deal has yet to be ironed out.
"It's close, but it's back to funding," Friedman said. "Who's going to fund it?"
FDOT spokeswoman Jessica Keane said District 5 Secretary Noranne Downs is working with staff on the matter.
Mica, whose district includes Maitland, said he's concerned enough about connectivity for SunRail riders that he's looking at options besides Lynx, such as diverting its funding and offering it to private companies to ferry passengers.
"If they do not act, I will take whatever measures I can to see that the service is improved," Mica said. "I can't force anyone to do anything, but I can sure be persistent and find a way to get the state's attention."
Keane said FDOT is aware of the connectivity problems in Maitland, and is "closely monitoring all the stations" and "weighing new marketing and outreach activities" to boost ridership not only there, but all along the 31-mile corridor.
Among their efforts, she said, are finding ways to improve parking at the popular DeBary station and to better coordinate the timing of trains to best serve major employment centers such as Orlando Regional Medical Center and Florida Hospital.
"We're seeing that some people can't take the train because it's off by a few minutes for certain shifts," Keane said. FDOT is considering tweaking train schedules to better align with those shifts. That would likely help ridership at last-place Orlando Health/Amtrak.
The NeighborLink pilot program is expect to cost about $26,000.
Meanwhile, Maitland riders may have another option early next year. The long-planned FlexBus project is moving ahead after a recently completed pilot program proved successful, Schieferdecker said.
The technologically ambitious on-demand shuttle service would allow passengers to summon shuttles using kiosks or their smartphones. If it works as planned, it could have a big impact on boosting lagging SunRail ridership at three of the lowest-performing stations.
The effort, a collaboration of Altamonte Springs, Casselberry, Longwood and Maitland, had originally been planned to be in place in time for the start of SunRail service. Maitland, Altamonte and Longwood had the second-, third- and fourth-worst ridership numbers in July, respectively. (Casselberry doesn't have a station, but residents are expected to make use of neighboring stations.)
FlexBus is now hoped to be up and running by the first quarter of next year, Schieferdecker said.
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