By Mary Hladky
New downtown transportation alternatives are edging closer to reality — if the city can find business partners willing to help.
City Council members, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency board, agreed at their Feb. 27 meeting to request proposals from private companies on how much they will charge the city to help it launch downtown transportation options.
The goal is to decrease downtown traffic congestion by getting people out of their cars and onto shuttles or trolleys.
The need for such service became more pressing when the Downtowner, which began operating in the city in 2015, left at the end of December after launching operations in Tampa in October.
The Downtowner, which continues to operate in Delray Beach, provides free door-to-door service in electric carts that people can summon via a mobile app.
Downtowner CEO Stephen Murray declined to comment on why he ended service in Boca Raton.
“It is best for us to stay internal with our affairs,” he said.
The Boca Raton City Council wants proposals for a similar service as well as a shuttle or trolley program that would use fixed routes in the downtown.
Council members agreed they want to set up public-private partnerships that will limit how much the city pays for the transportation services.
Important details, however, remain undecided. Council members did not say precisely where in the downtown the services would operate, or specify trolley routes. They also did not address operating hours.
How to pay for the city’s share of the costs also has not been ironed out. But the Florida Department of Transportation has awarded the city a $1.5 million grant that could be used to purchase vehicles. That money won’t be available until 2020, but Mayor Susan Haynie said it may be possible to get that date moved up.
Downtown Manager Ruby Childers estimated that a trolley system operating days, nights and weekends and picking up passengers every 10 minutes would cost $3.2 million for the trolleys, signage and trolley stops. Annual operations would cost $1.8 million.
Tampa is spending $420,000 a year for the Downtowner service, plus $140,000 to buy vehicles, Childers said. The program is supposed to pay for itself in three years, and city subsidies will be eliminated.
Council members indicated that is more than they are willing to pay.
“The cost of what Tampa is doing seems incredibly rich to me,” said council member Scott Singer, who doubles as CRA chairman.
Haynie spoke of a “limited city subsidy.”
Council members left details undecided in part so companies interested in operating the services for the city would not be constrained in offering up ideas. Haynie said she is “confident” companies will be interested in getting involved.
Council members also considered seeking proposals for a bicycle-sharing program that would allow people to pick up a bike from one location and return it there or at a different location. But they decided to take up that idea at a later date.
The city’s efforts to relieve downtown traffic congestion include construction of a downtown parking garage. A consultant is working with the city to help decide the best location and size.
A very preliminary cost estimate ranges from $28 million to $50 million for a multistory building, not including land acquisition. Land costs would be avoided if the city decides to build on land it owns around City Hall.
The consultant’s recommendations are expected later this year.