Last Thursday, Capital Metro was honored with a visit by some guests from Lakeland, Florida. Sixteen of their community’s leaders, including their mayor and city manager, came to learn about many of the projects and places that have made the world-class city it is, including our favorite of all their stops–Capital Metro’s North Operations Facility. Like Central Texas, Central Florida, where Lakeland is located, has some pretty serious population issues to deal with. Lakeland is smack dab in between Orlanda and Tampa so there are about 9 million people living within 100 miles of Lakeland. Think about that. San Antonio is about 80 miles from Austin, and the population of San Antonio’s metro area is about 2 million people and the population of Austin’s metro area is about 1.6 million people. We have some 3.6 million people versus their 9 million. That is a LOT of people, which means a LOT of moving around, which means a BIG transportation question.
Suffice to say, when they visited Capital Metro, they asked a lot of questions. Their communities are also considering passenger rail. Orlando is working on a 61-mile commuter rail project and Tampa is planning for light rail. Right in the middle, Lakeland is wondering how to connect those two systems because today, Lakeland’s only mass transit is their 38-bus “Citrus Connection.” (By comparison, Capital Metro has about 400 buses.) (They should give out oranges on their buses. I learned from my coworker Adam, who used to live there, that their county, Polk, produces more citrus than the entire state of California.) So they were very interested in our ENTIRE system and how it all worked together. Their community is also a freight rail hub so our experience in owning and operating our own freight rail line, and figuring out what to do with that when passenger rail starts next spring, prompted a lot of questions. And of course, they asked about the cost of the Red Line. The director of the Lakeland Economic Development Council who organized the trip, Steve Scruggs, had done his homework in advance and reminded his team how inexpensive our system is compared to others across the country, including the systems that are being considered in Central Florida right now.
I gotta say that made me proud. And it made me proud to see how impressed they genuinely were with our entire network. I think we forget that we do have a pretty darn good system. Sure, we could use improvement but who can’t? With these kinds of trips, you realize that you do have something to be proud of and you realize that you do have stories and lessons to share. And surely they have lessons to share with us; we just didn’t have enough time to talk unfortunately. So I am prompted to do more Googling and talk to Steve more. And maybe one day I’ll visit Lakeland and see what they’ve done to move around 9 million people. And besides, I love Frank Lloyd Wright and I hear that they have the largest single collection of buildings designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright anywhere. Pretty impressive for a 38-bus town that’ll one day serve millions of riders who may one day converge upon their fair city by passenger rail.