Hop on! LeeTran ridership down, but driving toward bright future

Reporter: Peter Fleischer Writer: Peter Fleischer
Published: Updated:

Lee County public transit is seeing less than half the ridership it got just 10 years ago. But despite those numbers, county officials tell WINK News that public transit is in a strong place.

Investigative reporter Peter Fleischer hopped on board the bus to see who is riding and asked leadership how it plans to serve those people in the future.

Fixed route rides start at $1.50 and day passes go for just $4. Senior citizens over 65 years old are eligible for discounted rates. Lee County Transit – better known as LeeTran – is affordable and accessible.

“I usually go to the stores and just see people and stuff like that,” Dunbar resident Rudolph McDonald explained. “Or, I’ll go to the doctor and stuff like that.”

89-year-old Eileen Williams says she rides the bus for fun most mornings. There’s a bus stop near her apartment. She knows all the drivers and most of the regular riders. For her, LeeTran is a happy part of her routine.

“Sometimes I’m going places and sometimes I just feel bored at home so I just come out and ride the bus,” Williams said with a smile, sitting in her usual window seat near the middle of the bus.

Daryl Anderson has spent most of his life in Fort Myers, and has been riding with LeeTran for years. He uses the bus to get to and from work daily, but also travels to see family and friends that don’t live within walking distance.

“It’s a very positive experience, I’m really happy with them,” Anderson reflects on his time riding LeeTran. “I have noticed less people riding as I’ve rode the bus.”

Anderson’s observation is fair. There are fewer people riding LeeTran than there were just a few years ago. Numbers from the county show passenger trips have fallen across the last decade, from 3.9 million in 2014 to 1.5 million last year.

Assistant county manager Robert Codie has a theory on why.

“Remote workforce,” Codie says simply. “People aren’t going to brick and mortar facilities anymore. Remote work has changed our transportation and the workforce in general.”

Despite the overall drop, county officials feel optimistic. After seeing a drop during the pandemic, post-COVID total rides increased to 2.2 million in 2022. County projections say they would’ve seen a similar output in 2023, but Hurricane Ian knocked out hundreds of thousands of rides, especially near the beach.

Codie says two million total rides per year is a fair goal.

Data via Lee County Government

“Realistically, we’re in a suburban community, and we don’t have the population densities nor do we have an economic center,” Codie explained, noting how LeeTran studies how other counties of similar size and makeup operate.

The county hopes to hit that 2 million rider mark consistently in the years ahead. But, customer service takes priority over numbers.

“They treat me pretty good,” Rudolph said when asked about LeeTran employee conduct. “I don’t have no problems at all.

During Fleischer’s day on the bus, he met people from every walk of life. The bus was never more than half full, but everyone on that bus needed it to get to their destination. 

Anderson said he couldn’t earn a living without the public transit system.

“I wouldn’t get where I need to be on time,” Anderson admitted, claiming the bus system is usually running on schedule. “I probably wouldn’t be able to work.”

No Brightline, but service improvements are planned

Codie says accessibility is Lee Tran’s most crucial function.

“The people whom we’re providing a service to are the ones that need our services, that depend on our services and for the most part, they’re the ones that provide services to the rest of our community,” Codie claimed.

He says areas like Dunbar, Lehigh Acres and North Fort Myers see the largest amount of service employees using Lee Tran consistently. He also acknowledged that public transit works differently in other areas of the Sunshine state.

In Orlando and Miami, the speedy Brightline train is connecting cities. But because southwest Florida isn’t home to one major urban hub, its transit is going in another direction.

“We’re just looking at community needs,” Codie said. “And that’s our direction. That’s ever-evolving and ever-changing.”

While the Brightline gathers headlines, LeeTran points to its mobility on-demand service, which launched in 2022 through a partnership with Uber. For $1.50, patrons can get dropped off across the county, just like a normal ride-share service.

It’s already seen big business in Bonita Springs and Lehigh Acres.

“I see continued growth” Codie said when asked about the future of public transit in Lee County. “I see us maximizing our roadways.”

For Anderson, LeeTran is already providing the services that he’s looking for. He thinks if the county continues to focus on passenger needs, the ridership numbers will follow.

“It’s a very positive experience, I’m really happy with them,” Anderson insists. “In the future, I think it’ll be a good future. It’ll get back booming.”

Ridership, budget data

Data from across the region shows how crucial a service LeeTran provides. Pre-pandemic numbers reveal Charlotte County had barely four percent of LeeTran’s ridership, while Collier County had barely 26 percent.

2019 ridership data:

Lee County: 3,000,000

Charlotte County: 123,886

Collier County: 800,000

The LeeTran annual budget is not paid for solely through Lee County tax dollars. The service is paid for by a combination of federal grants, state programs and local funding. For the fiscal year 2023, Lee County listed its projected transportation budget at $251 million.

Lee County transportation budget through the years:

2023 = $251,823,526

2022 = $386,244,224                

2021 = $149,841,702

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