October 24, 2014
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Southwest Florida Transportation: Are We There Yet?

How our airport, bus and traffic systems serve our needs.

Illustrations by Paul Zwolak

 

Getting from here to there is something we take for granted in the 21st century. Whether it be from your driveway to the corner big-box store or your office to the airport to catch the redeye to L.A., you’ve got more options than you’ve ever had before. But because of those many options, getting around Southwest Florida can be complicated. So to help you navigate this area’s myriad transportation options, we’ve explored everything except horseback.

Buckle up.

 

RSW: Flying High in the Ratings

Carly Littlehale glanced around the terminal of Southwest Florida International Airport one afternoon and offered it an unconditional thumbs up. Clean. Friendly staff. Good restaurant selection.

“And free Wi-Fi, which not every airport offers,” says Littlehale, 22, nodding toward her open laptop. She’s in the energy industry and travels frequently.

Anyone who remembers the old RSW—the dingy green carpets, drab waiting areas, nonexistent shops and concessions—knows that local air travel leaped into modernity when the new terminal opened eight years ago.

Yes, the current airport certainly outshines its predecessor, but how does it stack up to its peers?

Quite well, it turns out.

You can get to as many as or more nonstop destinations flying out of RSW as you can from similarly sized airports in much larger metropolitan areas. You can a catch a transcontinental flight, a rarity among airports, big or small. Air Berlin flies direct from here to Dusseldorf.

On-time takeoffs and landings are above the national average and on a par with comparative airports, according to federal data. It’s cheaper to fly out of RSW than it is from similarly sized operations. Domestic fares originating from Southwest Florida International averaged $317.91 in 2012, below the costs of Miami ($369.05) and Tampa ($318.86), but more than Fort Lauderdale ($274.86) and Orlando ($284.02), according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. And, at the peak of season, there’s more air traffic in and out of RSW—about 330 flights per day—than San Antonio, which sees an annual average of 260 per day. That frequency means not only a pipeline of tourists, but also travel flexibility for locals.

“We stand out as an airport that is just different than a lot of other airports,” says Victoria Moreland, spokeswoman for the Lee County Port Authority, which operates the airport.

What really makes Southwest Florida International unique, she says, is the number of passengers and the level of service offered here compared to our relatively small population. The airport is typically ranked among the top 50 busiest in the nation.

To put it in perspective: The Fort Myers-Cape Coral metropolitan statistical area—the Census’ way of reporting data—was 645,293 as of last year. Southwest Florida International served 7.3 million people in 2012, about the same number as Indianapolis International and Port Columbus International in Ohio, both of which reside in MSAs three times as large. Naturally, all airports serve communities beyond their MSAs—in our case, the approximately 1 million people residing in Southwest Florida. To hammer home Moreland’s point: San Antonio has 1.4 million people just in the city, yet its per-day passenger counts are just a little higher than Southwest Florida’s, Moreland says.

“It provides a modern, convenient, user-friendly facility without the hustle and bustle of the metropolitan airports and with all of the amenities,” says Lee County Port Authority Executive Director Robert Ball. “It’s just a nice place.”

Agreed, say travelers and locals.

“In places like Atlanta, the hustle and bustle, oh wow, it’s too much. This airport is laid back,” Carolyn Huggins, a Fort Myers resident, says while waiting for a flight to arrive one afternoon.

“Everything seems to be very smooth. Even when there’s a line, it moves,” says Louise Warren, 75, a Naples resident who flies back and forth from her native New York.

The airport, incidentally, had been designed with Southwest Florida’s senior traveling population in mind: compact concourses, easy drop-offs and pickups, and short-as-possible distances between gates, baggage claims, parking and rental car offices.

But what’s with all the construction, wondered Richard Mercer, 33, of Manchester, England, who noted the contrast between a quiet pre-season afternoon and the bustle outside.

Staying competitive in this business apparently takes more than building a $438 million airport. RSW continues to work off of its 20-year plan, which calls for many more enhancements. A new $15.6 million Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting station just opened. Now, the airport and its partners are working on:

  • A $54.1 million connection that links travelers directly from I-75 to Southwest Florida International.
  • A $39 million apron and taxiway expansion project that creates more space for taxiing and parking and an eventual link to a planned new runway.
  • A $5 million rental car relocation project and quick-turnaround facility to help companies get cars cleaned, serviced and back on the road.
  • A new 20-pump gas station, 7-Eleven convenience store, restroom facility and cell phone lot project.
  • A $45 million, 215-feet-tall air traffic control tower that will double the size of the existing tower.

Airlines are adding services, too, which are welcome developments to Ball, who is on a constant mission to encourage more direct flights. Nonstop service doesn’t just promote travel to those cities; it opens up gateways to new parts of the country—or the world.

United Airlines and Southwest Airlines recently announced nonstop service to Denver, for example, facilitating travel to the entire West Coast, Ball explains.

“Right now you have to go to three or four airports to get there,” he says. “Anything we can get west of the Mississippi River is a big win for us.”

That’s why the German flight is important, too; travelers can fly direct to Germany and then catch connectors to the rest of Europe without having to stop at major U.S. hubs first.

“It’s really unique to go to a major European city … and see a little sign up for Fort Myers in between Chicago and Los Angeles,” Ball says.

How much more will Southwest Florida International grow? It’s hard to say. As long as population size and tourism patterns remain the same, the airport may not see a big spike in passenger traffic and the accompanying demands for more gates or services (the airport is designed to be able to add two more concourses and 15 additional gates to the existing concourses).

But if more big companies like Hertz move here, demand for air travel will only increase, Ball says.

“We don’t know what a world headquarters is going to mean to us. We know there will be a lot of jobs and businesses that follow them,” Ball says. “It’ll generate air travel and it’ll generate air travel in the valleys (off-season months). We’re real excited about that.”

 

RSW Fun Facts

  • It’s one of 26 U.S. airports to offer transcontinental service.
  • It adopted the nation’s first bird dog to chase wildlife off the runways.
  • It hosts the 23rd largest rental car market in the U.S.
  • With 14,000 acres, it’s the nation’s third-largest airport in terms of land mass, thanks to a 6,000-acre swamp the airport maintains as part of an environmental mitigation deal.
  • It generates $3.8 billion for the local economy.
  • It does not use any ad valorem taxes for operations or construction projects.
  • It welcomes 15 million people per year, between travelers and their guests.

—JR

Car Traffic: Your Own Set of Unique Trials

By the time you’ve run the gauntlet of ladders and brooms on I-75, eluded the serial texters and Facebookers on Immokalee Road, and waded through the annual migration of transplanted sun-seekers on U.S. 41, you might just think you’re qualified for a full 500 miles at Daytona.

To locals, it’s just another day on the roads in Southwest Florida.

Whether it’s trying to find the elusive Northwest Passage commute between Cape Coral and Naples, or simply surviving a quick dash to the neighborhood Publix, area highways and byways have their own set of unique trials  that are the daily grind for planner types in Lee and Collier counties.

A measure of affirmation came in the 2012 Urban Mobility Report issued by the Texas Transportation Institute, which compared road congestion in metropolitan areas across the United States since 1982. In it, Lee County was ranked fourth among 21 areas with populations of less than 500,000 and 17th overall when included among the entire field of 101 areas. Collier County was not included in the report.

The three worst places nationwide? Austin, Texas; Riverside/San Bernadino, Calif., and Washington, D.C.

“It’s not the easiest job and it’s not for everybody, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t change a thing,” says Nick Casalanguida, who’s nearing his second anniversary as administrator of Collier’s Growth Management Division, which oversees county transportation engineering and road maintenance.

In other words, when it takes you 45 minutes to get from dinner at Handsome Harry’s back to your room at The Ritz-Carlton, he’s among the people you’re cursing under your breath.

But the problems you encounter today are things his predecessors contemplated a generation ago.

“The industry standard is a 25-year plan,” he says. “All municipalities and urban boundaries are required to have that in order to get federal money. In addition to that, you’re also working from a tactical capital improvement plan (usually five to 10 years out) and the operating plan, which is one year.”

Those plans include a glimpse at traffic flows, which, in Casalanguida’s case, means contemplating road construction/improvement based on annual 10-month averages. Traffic is charted for all 365 days and 8,760 hours of the year, from highest to lowest, with the 30 days on either end thrown out.

Proper planning leads to prudent improvement, he says, not knee-jerk fixes.

“You don’t design a church based on Easter Sunday,” Casalanguida says. “You plan for what you think you’re going to have for the average times during the year. If you did it the other way, you’d have a lot of roads with a lot of vacant lanes.”

Still, he admits, even the best-laid plans are no match for the seemingly overnight arrival of season and the instant 20 percent increase in capacity that can transform a carefree 10-minute cruise to a mind-numbing 30-minute slog.

And while Casalanguida and his minions can remotely tweak the timing of lights at intersections to help clear the clogs, there are some places that even he concedes he’d rather avoid in daylight hours.

“Pine Ridge is the only road that consistently gives me heartburn,” he says. “When you get down to it sometimes, there’s only so much you can do. But overall I think the people of Naples feel lucky to have the road system that they have.”

The same is true for Lee County, at least “for the most part,” according to David Loveland.

In fact, the veteran director of the county’s department of transportation often finds himself wondering why some of the roads that have been augmented—in an effort to reduce congestion in other places—aren’t utilized to the levels he would have imagined.

For example, the portion of Summerlin Road between Cypress Lake Drive and Boy Scout Drive was widened to six lanes as a means of lessening jams on U.S. 41, but it’s an alternative that, in Loveland’s estimation, hasn’t caught on yet. He had similar thoughts about the recent six-lane improvement to Metro Parkway, which, incidentally, will be enhanced additionally by the spring of 2015 with construction of a stretch connecting Winkler Avenue to the Edison Bridge.

“As 41 overloaded, I thought more drivers would shift over,” Loveland says. “It’ll just happen over time. There’s no need for special emphasis or effort with education. The routes are out there; people can find them with Google Maps.”

As for what he notices when he’s out driving, Loveland says his headaches come from stops and starts at the same places as everyone else—particularly intersections at Colonial Boulevard and U.S. 41, Gladiolus Road and U.S. 41, and Colonial Boulevard and Summerlin Road.

Problem is, as his Collier colleague stated, there’s only so much that can be done.

“There are improvements that we could do, but the question is whether or not they’re desirable,” Loveland says, referring to an overpass that’s occasionally been suggested for Gladiolus and 41. “When you’ve done all you can do in terms of lanes and signals, your options become grade separations.

 “But overpasses aren’t always popular. People think they’re an overbuild for the area and the businesses at the corners don’t like them because of what results with traffic flow.”

Not to mention that municipalities such as Loveland’s aren’t exactly awash in money.

He says his operating budget has been cut 25 percent since 2008, forcing him and his DOT cohorts into a chronic situation of having to do more with less. Meanwhile, when it comes to maintaining the integrity of bridges across the Caloosahatchee River and other waterways, doing less is not an option.

“All of the bridges are on an annual inspection schedule, and we do repairs as they’re needed to keep them operational,” he says. “Ultimately, it becomes a business issue. If you keep pouring money in just to keep something functional, you’re going to hit a point of diminishing returns. No one wants to spend the money, but we identify the ones that need replacing and the commissioners approve them.”

Other projects on the short-term agenda include widening of State Road 82 in sections where it’s now two lanes, widening U.S. 41 to six lanes in North Fort Myers, and widening Burnt Store Road in Cape Coral between Pine Island Road and Van Buren Parkway.

“There are challenges every day; different issues, but always some issues,” Loveland says. “From an overall network standpoint, we’re satisfied. Clearly we have some concerns, but as a whole we have a pretty good network.”

 

Routes to Avoid

“I find Cape Coral Parkway to be a real trouble spot in the mornings and evenings. It’s terrible and often backed up. I now take a couple of back streets to the south to get around some of the congestion, coming back out onto the parkway just before Del Prado.” —Samantha Scott

“I never take Pine Ridge Road if I can avoid it. It was once a quiet road, 20 years ago, but now seems to be the center of Naples: traffic all times of day, too many lights and way too many cars. Avoid at all costs going west on Pine Ridge and trying to turn south on 41; you will wait three to four lights for a turn during season and during peak times of the day.” —E. Sue Huff

“I tend to avoid 41 through Estero due to construction and congestion, especially during season. Also, avoid McGregor Boulevard during school start/end times.” —Holly Boldrin

“The light at DeLeon and Colonial seems to be the longest light in the history of Fort Myers. McGregor during school release times and rush hour are backed up for what can be over an hour during season. I usually will try to find another route if I have to head toward the downtown area.” —Angeli Chin

The Buses: “It’s a Slower Pace”

Having a driver is one of the great luxuries in life. You just take a seat and let your mind wander, confident in the knowledge that you will arrive at your destination with little to no input.

While that lifestyle seems accessible only to those who’ve beaten the market to within an inch of its life, the truth is that a driver is available to any of us—a bus driver, that is.

The public transportation systems of Southwest Florida—the Collier Area Transit system (CAT) and Lee County’s LeeTran—annually move millions of riders across thousands of miles, all within the counties.

For many, it’s a necessity. Shawna Reeves boards a LeeTran bus several times a week to get to her part-time job near Edison Mall. The “50-ish” Fort Myers resident uses LeeTran when her husband has the family’s only car to get to his job in Lehigh. Some days she’s exasperated.

“You never really know when they’re going to show up,” says Reeves when we catch up to her at a bus stop along Palm Beach Avenue. She takes the Route 100 bus to LeeTran’s Rosa Parks station and then transfers onto a bus along the Route 140 to a stop outside Edison Mall. In all, it takes her more than an hour and a half door to door each way. It would take approximately 16 minutes in a car.

“You get used to it,” Reeves says. “It’s a slower pace.” And she wasn’t kidding. As much as you’d think buses must adhere to a specific schedule, that’s easier said than done when you have young families with small children in strollers or riders with bikes boarding every few hundred feet.

And based on the numbers for LeeTran, don’t be surprised by buses filled to capacity. LeeTran reported a record-breaking 4,075,250 rides in its last full fiscal year (that number includes riders on LinC, a recently added service that runs between Coconut Point in Estero and Creekside Transfer Station in Naples—linking the two counties). That amounts to an increase in ridership of 26.7 percent over the past two years. For its part, the CAT system carried more than 1.1 million rides in its last fiscal year; many of them regulars who use the bus systems as their primary transportation.

David Perez has been taking the CAT service from his apartment off Collier Boulevard in East Naples to his retail job on Airport-Pulling Road for six months. “I couldn’t afford to get my car fixed so I started riding the bus,” Perez says. “It does take some getting used to, but it’s really just an adjustment—an adjustment in lifestyle. (The buses) are clean, everyone is friendly and it only costs $35 a month for a pass. I couldn’t even fill my gas tank once for $35.”

Twenty-seven percent of CAT’s riders use the service six days a week, says Trinity Scott, CAT’s public transit manager. And many of those people bring their bicycles along for the ride. Last year, more than 50,000 bicycles were placed aboard CAT buses.

They’re smart accessories because even though the CAT service covers more than 1,500 square miles stretching from Immokalee Road in the north over to Immokalee in the west and south to Marco Island, you might be surprised to learn that there is at least one popular destination that doesn’t have a stop: the beach.

“For beach access, generally U.S. 41 is the closest that we get in the Naples area,” Scott says. “To go to Clam Pass, you would need to depart Route 1B at U.S. 41 at Pine Ridge Road near Waterside Shops.” You would then be left with a half-mile walk. A trip to the Naples Pier requires a three-quarters-of- a-mile walk from the nearest stop.

In Fort Myers, things are a little easier for visitors seeking beach time.

“We have a number of tourists that use (the) Route 50 from Southwest Florida International Airport to Summerlin Square, which is the starting point for the Fort Myers Beach trolley,” says Joann Haley, LeeTran’s transit marketing manager. “Service starts on the mainland at Summerlin Square and travels the length of the island, ending at Lovers Key State Park. Visitors to Fort Myers Beach are able to vacation without needing to rent a car.”

In 2012, LeeTran, which operates 60 buses and trolleys (half of which are hybrids), was named Outstanding Transit System of the Year by the Florida Public Transportation Association (based on the previous three years of operations, fleet maintenance, safety, security and ridership).

We decided to check it out ourselves and plotted a journey from this writer’s home in Fort Myers to the Gulfshore Life offices in Naples. Under most circumstances, via automobile, the journey is 37.6 miles (via I-75) and takes between 45 and 55 minutes (depending on traffic).

The LeeTran website’s trip planner mapped the route thusly: All I needed to do was take the 100 over to Rosa Parks bus station (a 30-minute ride), then 20 minutes later hop on the 140, which would take me to Coconut Point (50 minutes later), where I would connect to the LinC bus, with a destination of Creekside Transfer Station on Immokalee Road (39 minutes later). From there I’d need to grab a CAT bus—Route 1B to U.S. 41 and Pine Ridge Road. In a perfect world, those four buses would take just shy of three hours from start to finish. Another 40 minutes of walking would need to be added to this (literal) exercise to get to and from the bus stops.

But the first bus ran 25 minutes late. (Rumor was a bike fell off the bus prior to our stop and the bus ran over it, hence the delay—and Reeves’ consternation.) When it finally arrived, I learned they don’t make change—and the driver will tell you so in no uncertain terms. Handing the bus driver a 10 and saying, “That’s OK, keep the change,” is bad form.

The bus itself was clean and quiet and had seats covered in what appeared to be carpet remnants from a Connecticut Indian casino. Comfortable. As expected, the bus was pretty full. At the next stop, a man in a wheelchair joined us, which required those in the front to find new accommodations, as those seats get folded up to fit wheelchairs. From there, people came and went and the bus was standing room only.

Long story short, everything else went smoothly until this writer misheard the LinC driver and got off in front of Germain Lexus on U.S. 41, not Creekside Transfer Station.

After 15 minutes of waiting in the blazing sun and no bus, I decided to call CAT just to find out when the next one might arrive. “Never,” said the lovely woman on the phone. “We don’t run in that area. That’s a LinC stop.” “Ah,” I replied. “How far is it to Creekside Transfer Station from where I am?” “Two miles,” she said.

“@#*&%^!”

“Don’t worry. I’ll send a car for you,” she said. “We do that for anyone who got off at the wrong spot and needs help getting back on track.”

Of course, even with the lift to Creekside (although they would have dropped me off at the office if I’d have asked), I was going to miss my connecting bus from the transfer station to Pine Ridge Road and U.S. 41 and another wouldn’t be around for 90 more minutes.

So I walked just to spite myself. All in all and from door to door the trip took—get this—five hours one way. Yep, drivers are quite a luxury.

 

Guide to Services

Prices: CAT (full fare $1.50/day pass $4); LeeTran (full fare $1.25/day pass $3.50) Monthly passes are available for both for $35.

Contact: CAT (252-7777, colliergov.net); LeeTran (533-8726, rideleetran.com) Both services have websites with reams of information. CAT has real-time tracking for each bus that can be accessed online at collierivl.availtec.com/infopoint so you know exactly where your bus is at any moment. Fort Myers has an Internet service that tracks only its trolleys and predicts the arrival time for the next one at a specific stop.

Time between stops: Varies with each route, but figure 60 to 90 minutes on average.

Shuttles for people with disabilities: Both CAT and LeeTran offer separate shuttles for people with disabilities.

 

Leisure Rules! Let the Golf Carts Roll

It sort of makes sense that, in a land with links behind every gate and where the desired pace is never much faster than a stroll, the golf cart would become a preferred mode of transportation for some people.

We’ve been seeing them pop up more and more in downtown Naples over the past few years, outfitted with the proper tags and beach parking permits, mind you. And it got us wondering how that was legal. Well, under state statute, golf carts can be registered to drive on roads where the posted speed limited is 35 mph or less.

That’s one of the reasons they are so appealing to the folks on Boca Grande, the barrier island off the coast of Lee County, which boasts miles of dedicated golf cart paths.

“It’s just the perfect way to get around the island,” says Marcy Shortuse, editor of the Boca Beacon. “Been that way for decades, at least since the ’70s. We don’t have much parking and the island really isn’t that big. You’d be hard-pressed to find just about anyone who lives here who drives their car on a daily basis.”

—Jonathan Foerster

 

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