Dozens of Polk County high school students joined a cadre of city, county and transit officials Monday as they formally launched a program that lets the students ride county public transit system buses free.
Only the second such program in the nation, the COLTS, or Community of Learning Transportation Services, program is free to any high schooler whose parents have signed a permission slip OKing their use of the public transportation system.
The program involves buses belonging to the Citrus Connection in the greater Lakeland area, WHAT (Winter Haven Area Transit) in the Winter Haven area and the Polk County Transit System which covers the remainder of the county.
According to Polk County Schools Transportation Director Rob Davis, the county school board chipped in $47,000 from its transportation budget for the first year of the program. Transit Director Tom Philips said Monday the school board, the transit authorities and the county had been in talks for “about a year” before the program informally kicked off this summer for “a trial run.”
Philips said the program was opened to some 600 students involved in summer learning programs and garnered about 250 riders during the six-week trial period. As of the formal opening on Monday at the Harrison School of the Arts, there were more than 10,000 of Polk’s 28,000 eligible high school riders signed up.
Students interested in using the bus service must have the signed permission slip and a stick-on decal on their student ID cards to ride the bus free.
“All they have to do is get on the bus, show the driver their sticker and they’re ready to go,” Philips explained. Without the sticker, a student rider will have to pay the fare, he added. Students may ride the buses any time on any day regardless of whether they are going to or from a school program.
Superintendent of Schools Kathryn LeRoy claimed Monday was “an exciting day that will open many doors to many of our students who haven’t been able to participate in after-school learning or sports activities because they had no transportation.”
County Commission Chair Melony Bell touted the collaborative effort the COLTS program represents.
“This is the sign of a village coming together, a real collaborative effort to help our leaders of tomorrow,” she said.
“When I was in the school system, there were so many students who couldn’t participate in sports or after-school programs,” explained County Commissioner Ed Smith. “They just had no way to get home. Now they have the opportunity to do it and I’m elated about it. This is a fantastic day for Polk County, the students and the school system.”
Dozens of Harrison students joined the ceremonies during their lunch break and many raised their hands when asked if they had taken advantage of the program. One Harrison student, Ca’Rinthya Johnson has been taking advantage of the free program since school started in August.
“I take it from school to my after-school job,” she said, “and anytime I need to go somewhere. My mom works so it was hard to get involved in anything before this became available. I love it.”
Less than six weeks into the program, ridership on the county’s buses has gone from “about 60 students per week to into the thousands,” said Bell.