MOORE HAVEN — Glades County commissioners listened intently to a presentation by an official with the Heartland Regional Transportation Planning Organization (HRTPO) last week about public transit availability to disabled and low-income county residents.
Although Glades County is much smaller in population than neighboring Hendry County, its residents still get thousands of trips each year from the regional Community Transportation Coordinator (CTC), currently the nonprofit Good Wheels Services LLC, a subsidiary of Good Wheels Inc. based in Fort Myers, which is a nearly 30-year-old company.
Good Wheels has been the CTC for Lee County since 1990 and expanded shortly after it was founded into most of Southwest Florida, including as the major provider for the Transportation Disadvantaged Program in Lee, Hendry and Glades counties. The firm serves as the major transportation provider for Medicaid in Lee, Hendry, Glades and portions of Collier County, as well. Its contract with HRTPO runs through next June, so the organization is updating all the member counties’ boards of commissioners as to what may happen for the funding and operation of public transportation services when the next regional CTC is selected this autumn for a new contract period beginning July 1, 2020.
Glades County Manager Martin Murphy has met with Hendry County Administrator Jennifer Davis recently regarding the prospect of a partnership to solicit proposals on bus service for the region. The HRTPO’s engagement and mobility manager, Marybeth Soderstrom, came to the Glades commissioners’ June 10 meeting to discuss the possible options and tell them where things stood.
Good Wheels is one of several CTCs for the organization’s six counties and the urbanized areas of Highlands County, including Sebring and Avon Park. (The other counties are DeSoto, Hardee and Okeechobee.) The HRTPO is the long-range transportation planning agency for the region, making future road construction decisions as well as coordinating public transit services. Glades County Commission Chairman Tim Stanley is on its board of directors.
Ms. Soderstrom said, “We are actively looking for applications from Glades County for our Citizens Advisory Committee. The other one we’re going to talk about is our Local Coordinating Board,” which oversees the CTC.
The HRTPO is updating its longer-range five-year transportation service plan while also preparing to possibly seek a new CTC, so she was also looking for opinions from the commissioners.
“Last year, 4,300 to 4,400 trips were provided to residents of Glades, and about 25,000 to residents of Hendry, through this program. There are state and also federal funds that enter into the picture … you provide a 10% local match, which is a line item in your budget,” she explained.
The HRTPO puts together financing from all the public-money pots it is eligible for, and for 2020 there will be a bigger state pot. “There is also a mobility enhancement grant which is a competitive grant process that they have at the state level and, because of recent legislation, there is now $10 million in that pot, so there is a lot of opportunity there.” They also received two vehicles for Glades County services through a local grant.
“That’s all the state funding,” Ms. Soderstrom said, proceeding to run through a number of federal grants and USDOT financing for transportation. “There are lots and lots of pieces,” she added.
The HRTPO is responsible to help select a CTC every five years, normally through a Request for Qualifications process; it invites both public and private nonprofit agencies to participate, then selects and recommends an agency to the county boards, all of which must approve their region’s CTC choice.
She explained that there are several different models in use statewide for financing and operating public transportation services; in some places, county economic development agencies do it, even counties themselves do. And that could happen here, too, Ms. Soderstrom explained.
The Hendry County commissioners have repeatedly expressed their displeasure over how Good Wheels operates; indeed, the county itself is moving toward becoming the three counties’ CTC itself.
“So Hendry is interested in pursuing becoming the CTC for your service area,” Ms. Soderstrom said. “They did take a vote, they have started the process; and essentially what would happen, because you are a joint service area — and it really makes sense to keep the area together — is they would be coming to you” with their plans, take on the administrative burden and contract with Glades County for the right of service.
She said further that the HRTPO board meets Wednesday, June 19, and will be putting out an RFQ “to stay on our timeline but, at any point, if one of the counties says ‘We’d like to be the CTC,’ then we’d stop our process. But our proposals will be due in September; we’ll be taking action in November, either way, and we’d bring it to you in December.”
Commissioner Donna Storter Long asked whether Glades could go in with one of the other county regions rather than Hendry/Lee, and Ms. Soderstrom replied it was possible but would involve changing their overall arrangement, that the other counties would have to approve the move. The other region’s CTC contract is good through 2021, and she said none of the other counties has expressed any interest in changing the setup.