The man behind the bus

photography by Philip Pietri

The Lakelander gets to know the executive director of the Lakeland Area Mass Transit District and Polk Transit.
The Lakelander: Tell us about your background and professional history.
Tom Phillips: My wife, Michelle, and I have been married for 12 years. We met in college
at the University of New Mexico, and when I first met her I thought I didn’t have a chance; she was way out of my league. At the time, I was reading Clive Barker’s Imajica. Michelle walked up to me one day, grabbed the book out of my hands, threw it over a second-story balcony (without looking), and said, “You can read that on your own time; this is our time.” The rest is history … and I never finished the book.
Michelle has a degree in Islamic art and architecture. She is wicked talented but refuses
to mass produce her most successful pieces that are so desired in the marketplace. Instead, she prefers to create what she feels is needed. Her award-winning Arts in the Ballpark Flying Tigers jersey hangs in my office as does some of her other work. Today, Michelle works at Florida Southern College, both in the preschool and at The Roberts Academy. In her spare time, she paints.
We have two children, Marshall (10) and William (5), who both attend Lakeland
Christian School. We believe in teaching our children by example and living our lives in a way that demonstrates our faith in action. We open our home to those in need, including countless exchange students, migrant-worker families, and same-sex couples who have experienced housing and employment discrimination. People might be surprised to know that I am both liberal and pro-choice, and a professing Christian. I support gay marriage, immigration reform, and the legalization of marijuana. And I believe that my faith obligates me to living a life that loves all people equally.
My vice is CrossFit, although I am 10 years too old for the sport. My box [CrossFit lingo for a gym] is right next to the transit office, so my athletic successes and frequent failures are on display for the majority of the transit district employees to see. It’s humbling to walk into the office after half the staff has seen me collapse after working out.
I haven’t always worked in transit. In fact, my degree is in sociology and psychology. After New Mexico, I moved to Chicago and started working for Score Educational Centers. One day I got a call from my father that my mother had emergency brain surgery for a previously undetected brain tumor. Although she survived, she is profoundly disabled and unable to drive. As I watched my family struggle with mobility options in an area without mass transit, I decided to change my job and my life.
With no transit experience on my resume, I blindly applied for a transportation manager position at Northwest Indiana Community Action (NWICA) in Hammod, Indiana. At NWICA, I reduced the operations budget by $244,000 and became the first publictransit provider in the state to have mobile data computers onboard vehicles that directly provided the drivers with real-time information about the needs of the disabled clients they were serving, such as: “Wheelchair ramp in back,” or “Customer is deaf; do not blow horn,” or “Customer is blind; cannot see vehicle; knock on
Due to these successes at NWICA, I was recruited by PACE Suburban Bus in Chicago to work in the paratransit operations support department. At PACE, I was part of the team that moved the most disabled people in the world on a daily basis. My group at PACE was responsible for moving 16,000 people a day — all who were profoundly disabled — 365 days a year. I was responsible for expanding this service network into multiple new communities. Opportunity knocked with the Citrus Connection. I was attracted to the ability to lead my own agency at 35 years old and to build a team of 155. The central location of Lakeland was a huge attraction for my family. Lakeland has great parks, gorgeous lakes, affordable housing, and an award-winning college system that includes Florida Southern College, Southeastern University, and Florida Polytechnic. The ability to be at Walt Disney World or Clearwater Beach in about an hour was also a huge draw. After interviewing over the phone with Don Selvage a few times, I was positive that I needed to work in Lakeland and with Don in particular. Lakeland is lucky to have Don Selvage in this community. The man is a titan!
TL: Describe the size and scope of the Citrus Connection Network.
TP: The Citrus Connection is responsible for service in a special taxing district made up of the City of Lakeland, Mulberry, Bradley Junction, Pierce, and all points south. We operate 20 fixed routes and 18 paratransit routes for people who are elderly and/or disabled. We have a budget of $10.8 million and provide 1.5 million trips per year. The district employs 150 people, and our vehicles travel more than 7,500 miles per day.
TL: Why is a robust public transportation system important to a city?
TP: The millennial generation is less interested in driving. If we want to keep the millennials coming out of Catapult [Lakeland’s entrepreneur center], we need to have the types of services they want. Recently, millennials reported that 44 percent would rather have Wi-Fi access than own a car. Mayor Howard Wiggs says it best: “All great cities have mass transit.” For all of our successes, Polk County and Lakeland combine to make up the seventh poorest suburban area in the United States — 17.7 percent of our population lives at or below the poverty line. The Brookings Institute’s Executive Director Alan Berube told the Ledger that the number-one reason we are number seven on the list of poorest suburbs is a lack of mass transit. If our citizens can’t get to jobs because they don’t have access to a car, it doesn’t really matter if those jobs exist to 107,000 Polk County residents. Amazon is a great example. We have no bus service to the Amazon warehouse, so if you were qualified, with the exception of access to a car, you couldn’t even apply. Alternatively, as we get older, aging in place requires a quality public transit system. Many seniors can’t afford to live in assisted-living facilities that provide transit. Mass transit can provide a meaningful link to doctors, Publix, and social outings so people can age in their homes after they can no longer drive safely.
TL: Describe the ridership of the Citrus Connection. Who uses it, how often, etc.?
TP: Our ridership is as diverse as the communities we serve. The elderly in our community are going to Watson Clinic, LRMC, and to rehabilitation facilities. Students are traveling to colleges under our Universal Access programs. LEGOLAND employees are going to work. It’s a truly diverse system.
TL: In the three years that you’ve led the Citrus Connection and Polk Transit Authority, you’ve been recognized for modernizing ridership programs and developing institutional relationships that opened up access to more potential riders. Tell us about those things.
TP: The board of directors has really let us take the agency in some exciting new directions which have led to national recognition of our team. We made the cover of Busline Magazine in March/April 2013, and I was named Top 40 Under 40 — the Best and Brightest of 2012. We got rid of the antiquated transfer-based system and moved to a day-pass-based system that makes travel easier in a 24-hour period. The day-pass system also increased revenues. Making this transition may seem small, but most larger transit agencies won’t even attempt it due to the complex nature of all the moving parts. We did it with only ONE validated complaint!
We renamed the “Handy Bus” — our service for clients who are disabled — a more respectful “Polk Transit Connect.” My wife was the inspiration for that change. A veteran who had served in Iraq came into the transit office lobby asking for Handy Bus tickets. Michelle said he looked completely degraded by the name. I was so close to the agency I couldn’t see it, but it became clear that day that “Handy” was seen as short for “Handicapped.” We met with the community served by the former Handy Bus and quickly settled on the new name, Polk Transit Connect. The Universal Access programs allow employers and colleges to enter into an annual contract for a fixed rate that allows all employees/students to access Polk Transit simply by showing an ID. There are no restrictions on the number of rides or the purpose of the trip. Dr. Eileen Holden at Polk State College deserves the credit for the success of Universal Access programs in Polk County. Dr. Holden was the first to say yes to the program. The Polk State College Program was titled “Eagles Soar Free,” and we went from 2,400 rides a month of PSC students to 15,800. Dr. Holden set the stage; others followed. LEGOLAND contracted with us and went from 64 employee rides to 2,850. Southeastern University, Learning Resource Center, Polk County Veterans, Explorations V Children’s Museum, Be Fly Bike Tours, Peace River Center, Lakeland Housing Authority, PACE Center for Girls, Everest University, and Southern Technical College have all contracted with us.

As long as I’m here, I will never recommend raising rider fares.

The Polk Transit Authority has two programs that are truly out of the box: COLTS and a subsidized program with Florida Polytechnic. The COLTS program allows for Polk County Public Schools’ high school students to utilized public transit for school activities, jobs, tutoring, or any other trip purpose to advance education outside of the traditional classroom. COLTS is a partnership between the Polk County School Board and the transit system and is one of only two of its kind in the nation. The other out-of-the-box program is our fully subsidized program with Florida Polytechnic University. This program links downtown retailers with the Poly. I am still amazed that we were able to contract with the 11th largest school district in the nation and Florida’s 12th independent university in the span of two years.
Now in its third year, the Arts in Transit program allows artists to access riders with onboard performances of drama, dance, poetry, yoga, spoken word, and other forms of artistic expression. To have Derek Feacher, one of the few African American city managers in the entire state of Florida, reading Tupac poetry on a bus was something I will never forget. Locally, David Collins of Paint Along Studios sets the bar higher and higher each year. This year he painted the terminal trees different colors and painted several on-site murals. The Polk Transit Authority partners with Platform Art and David Collins to execute the program; I provide them cover with the City of Lakeland if we go too far.
TL: What are the economics of Citrus Connection? How much of the cost do fares cover, and how much comes from taxpayer subsidy?
TP: Citrus Connection fare-box recovery is 25.79 percent, which is above the national average of 20 percent. The remainder of the funding comes from the federal, state, and local government. For every $1 of investment in mass transit the economic impact is $6. Public transit will always be subsidized, just like roads, fire, police, ambulance, and trash services.
TL: Voters recently rejected a proposed increased consumption tax and decreased property tax plan that would have, in part, funded an expansion and improvement of the network. What effect does this have on the Citrus Connection, and what happens next?
TP: The My Ride citizen-based plan was to provide for transit expansion in all 17 municipalities and Poinciana as well as providing express-bus access to Tampa International Airport, the VA Hospital, Walt Disney World (for 7,500 employees who live in Polk County), and Orlando International Airport. None of that will happen in the near future. The citizenbased plan provided improvements to the Lakeland-based system to facilitate supporting of our economic development ambitions in workforce and education initiatives. Employers looking at relocating to Lakeland are looking for mass-transit options for younger employees; we will continue to struggle with this. That being said, we will continue to expand the Universal Access programs within the community and do the absolute best with the resources we have available. The My Roads loss means the board of county commissioners will need to develop a plan to maintain the 3,000 miles of county roadways and plan for roadway expansion in the future to support growth, development, and job creation.
TL: You’ve referenced good stewardship in public remarks. What does good stewardship look like at Polk Transit Authority?
TP: We have reduced the cost to operate the buses by 8.6 percent, or $11 an hour, by looking at the way we operate. We rethought the way we purchase fuel. Our board of directors now meets in a double-wide trailer and no longer rents a board room. We looked at other cost reductions that reduced the bottom line without impacting the employees. We began purchasing buses that are $82,000 less expensive. And we returned $100,000 to the board of county commissioners. I gave the bus drivers my executive car since they were driving a van from 1988 with no AC, and I did away with the executive assistant position. After the failure of the referendum, I declined my salary increase and cost-of-living adjustment. As long as I’m here, I will never recommend raising rider fares.