The people planning a downtown shuttle service that starts later this year have released maps showing the routes their eight-passenger carts will take during weekday lunchtimes and weekend evenings.

The Citrus Connection‘s board of directors approved the routes for its new service, The Squeeze, which will use gasoline-powered carts to ferry riders around downtown Lakeland.

One route will connect the lunchtime crowd and visitors from parking and offices to restaurants, bars and shopping via a concentric loop from Lake Morton Drive, up Tennessee Avenue to Bay Street and over to Kentucky Avenue, with a stretch along Lake Mirror Drive.

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Weekend evening patrons will get expanded access courtesy of a more elaborate route: two carts running opposite directions between the hotels next to the RP Funding Center and Florida Southern College's Usonian House on Frank Lloyd Wright Way.

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The tighter of the two routes, the Lunch Loop, will operate 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays with six stops along the way. This route will run continual five to-seven minute loops, with the goal of expanding options to the downtown lunch crowd, which often relies on staying within walking distance of their usual haunts.

The Night Shuttle will utilize two carts running opposite directions from 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays along an intricate route weaving together 14 stops. This route will begin at the Springhill Suites Lakeland and Hyatt Place Lakeland Center and end at The Usonian House. The expected run time is 11 to 13 minutes.

The Night Shuttle provides “an ability to market events at Branscomb (FSC's large auditorium) to downtown and the hotels,” says Tom Phillips, executive director for the Citrus Connection. “The big point is that the college students don't have to drive downtown. It's a safety issue. College students are going to do what they're going to do, and this gives them a safe way to get back and forth.”

Six years in the making, the one-year pilot program is a collaboration between the Citrus Connection and the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority. The city of Lakeland's Planning Department was also involved in the process of finalizing the routes.

Julie Townsend, executive director of the LDDA, credits the Citrus Connection for its work.

“(Phillips') staff really worked hard analyzing this,” including on-the-street interviews with potential riders, she says. “The big thing is we really needed to make the routes workable where people can connect with parking. It was a delicate balance between times for pick-ups and drop-offs, and putting people where they need to be.”

The Squeeze will utilize existing designated loading and commercial zones within the routes. Sandwich boards will be used initially to mark the stops, with drivers taking input from riders to help fine tune future stops based on rider input.

“This isn't to drive traffic to any particular business,” Townsend adds. “We have multiple constituents here.

“The bigger focus was on the people who aren't coming downtown because they're going to have to park, and will there be enough parking close to where they want to be.”

It's a perception with which downtown Lakeland has been grappling, she said.

“We want to take away the uncertainty, give them their certainty, and then give them the vehicle to get them close enough to their destination,” Townsend says.

Initial plans called for the purchase of electric carts. However, the Citrus Connection purchased carts that run on gasoline, due to concerns over charging times for electric while being able to maintain the consistency of the interval times of the loops.

So far the project is $30,000 under budget as far as capital expenses. These include $70,000 for three carts and three trailers to store and move the carts. The Citrus Connection board approved a one-year contract not to exceed $250,000 total operating costs, which also includes hiring two to three Squeeze operators — full-time jobs which should pay in the range of $18-$20 per hour.

Riders can purchase tickets – $2 for a day pass, $3 for a week pass or $9 for a month pass – via a cashless mobile ticketing app. They can then access the free myStop mobile app (Apple, Google), which is GPS enabled, to see in real time where the cart is and how many seats are available. There will also be QR codes at each stop and on the carts.

Townsend said she is currently looking into a program between Lakeland-area hotels and LDDA where the hotels could purchase tokens at a reduced price to provide to their customers.

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