LeeTran's ridership soared to a record-breaking 3.76 million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, for a year-over-year increase of 17 percent.
The transit system has achieved ridership records for 26 consecutive months, leading officials to believe that the trend will continue.
"Lee County is embracing public transportation like never before," said Transit Director Steve Myers. "Transit ridership is up nationwide, but among systems our size, growth has averaged around 5 percent. Achieving 17 percent is a real accomplishment."
Myers cited volatile gas prices, route and schedule improvements and improving employment numbers as factors that may be driving the ridership jump.
"We also opened a new transfer center at Edison Mall early this year, and have installed a number of bus shelters along busy routes," he said. "Both amenities have improved our passengers' comfort and may contribute to more ridership."
In planning for the system's future, Myers has to factor in a new challenge: overcrowded vehicles during peak commute hours.
"We are running at capacity on certain trips along U.S. 41, and between Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres," Myers said. The Lehigh route experienced a 41.6 percent increase in ridership, while the U.S. 41 route carried 1.2 million passengers during the past year.
The transit system's budget has remained level for several years, with no funding currently available to add buses to busy routes. The Board of County Commissioners has asked county staff to work with a Transit Task Force to explore opportunities for additional funding, and recommendations from the task force may be presented to the Board early next year.
--submitted by Joann Haley