By Mary Hladky
Boca Raton residents and visitors suddenly seem poised to have plenty of alternatives to driving their cars around downtown.
After talking for months about what type of transportation services should be offered to lessen traffic congestion, City Council members, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency board, heard at their June 12 meeting that at least two companies want to soon start service with electric vehicles.
And the Downtowner, whose departure from Boca Raton in December prompted council members to seek a replacement, is willing to return to the city.
Mike Trombino, who launched Slidr in Asheville, N.C., last year, said his company expanded to Naples this year, plans to start operating on Columbia, S.C., in July and in four more cities in 2018. It provides on-demand service via an app and by telephone.
Some cities subsidize his service, but Trombino indicated he might forgo that in Boca Raton.
The Free Ride, which began service in East Hampton, N.Y., in 2011 and now operates in 11 cities including West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, is planning to start service in downtown Boca Raton and eventually expand to other areas of the city.
The company also has an app for on-demand service.
“I believe we will be on the road by Oct. 1,” said Michael Liss, an attorney who represents The Free Ride.
Downtowner CEO Stephen Murray, whose company operates in Delray Beach, Tampa and two other cities, declined in March to say why he pulled out of the city.
“We’re very interested in coming back to the city of Boca,” he told The Coastal Star on June 12.
City Manager Leif Ahnell said any company could start providing service immediately as long as no city subsidy is involved.
Even though they are pleased the companies want to operate in the city, council members agreed to proceed in July with a request for proposals from private operators. That process could be halted if Slidr and The Free Ride are operating successfully in the city.
“I would love to see private industry step up as soon as possible,” said Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers.
A survey completed in June showed that Boca Raton businesses, residents and visitors want alternative downtown transportation.
The city posted the survey on social media, emailed it to downtown businesses and sent it to downtown property managers to share with their tenants. The Downtowner emailed the survey to its former Boca Raton riders.
A total of 1,759 downtown residents, visitors and people who work downtown responded, a far higher number than city officials expected. In all, 75 percent were interested or very interested in using an alternative downtown transportation service.
Sixty-five percent favored an on-demand service, while 19 percent wanted a trolley system that would have a fixed route downtown. Most wanted electric vehicles.
The main reasons they cited for coming downtown were dining, shopping, nightlife and special events. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents live downtown.
“There is definitely a demand for some kind of alternative service,” said council member Robert Weinroth.
Parking garage discussed
Council members next turned their attention to building a badly needed downtown parking garage.
The working assumption has been that the garage would be built on city-owned land behind the downtown library, two blocks north of City Hall and the Police Department and west of the FEC railroad tracks.
The city has tried for years to find a site closer to the heart of downtown, but landowners have been unwilling to sell their property.
Some council members began rethinking the location in May after Kim DeLaney, director of strategic development and policy for the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, said library land west of the railroad tracks would not be a good location for the garage.
Weinroth said he was “probably wrong” to support the library site. Mayor Susan Haynie agreed that is the wrong location.
DeLaney’s argument “is persuasive,” Weinroth said. “A garage between Dixie and Federal is much more valuable and gives us the garage we need.”
Council member Scott Singer agreed a site east of Dixie Highway would be best. “But we don’t own it,” he said.
“I submit that the best solution is proceeding now with the planned site the city currently owns, rather than spend many millions to buy new downtown parcels (something we’ve been exploring to no avail),” he wrote on his Facebook page.
Council members will address the matter again at a July 24 CRA meeting when they expect more input from DeLaney and a city consultant.