The Driving Force Behind Polk County Public Transportation


Tom Phillips – Executive Director of Lakeland Area Mass Transit District (Citrus Connection) is a visionary. His wife, Michelle, stated, “He sees the opportunity to work with the community to get things done; he does what he says.” John Duryee who has worked with four Citrus Connection executive directors labels Tom the “best of the best. I love to see someone his age with his knowledge and enthusiasm. He is two steps ahead.” Mayor Gow Fields (a member of the Lakeland Area Transit Board) has said, “Tom is innovative and creative and can relate to people from managerial, to drivers, to mechanics.”

Tom, age 36, began his job with the Citrus Connection in August 2011. Born and raised in Minnesota he graduated from the University of New Mexico with a Sociology major/Psychology minor. He met his wife, an art major, there. She is the director of Platform Art Kids. They married in 2001 and have two sons – William, 9, and Marshall, 4.


Tom came to Lakeland from Michigan City, Indiana, having been employed with PACE Suburban Bus in Illinois as a Senior Project Manager and needed a change. “I was the youngest of five finalists (for the executive director position)… by 25 years.” He toured the facility, met the employees, and came away thinking, “I have got to be a part of this. The people care about their customers. The bus drivers, everyone; they are part of the community.”

Tom knew that the “this” of which he wanted to be a part wasn’t a bed of roses. The previous director had been fired; the budget wasn’t balanced; there were busses grounded from disrepair; morale was down. The administrative staff was in a separate building due to an unattended mold issue.

Tom moved the administrative staff back to the main building, designing the offices with glass doors for an open door atmosphere. He meets with employees every morning, takes them to small weekly lunch chats, instituted a “Going the Extra Mile” award, and has addressed financial issues. A survey shows morale up by 87%. He also took over the Polk Transit Authority (a nonpaying job) to create a unified county transit system.

Fast forward two years. Tom turned things around for public transportation in Polk County. His enthusiasm is contagious. During our interview at Reececliff following a ground breaking for a bus shelter donated by Kiwanis Club of Lakeland and by Allen and Company, his attention waivered for a moment as he became excited by two Reececliff employees getting on a city bus. “The bus helped them to be able to get to their job and it doesn’t cost them much,” he explained. Tom has changed the ticket system. Instead of the antiquated 30 year old transfers, he instituted a nominal 24 hour fare. “I would rather see a bus system subsidized so employees can get to work. Much better to give a ‘hand up’ than a ‘hand down.’’’


Tom advocates employer sponsored public/private partnerships, believing them necessary in business and education for communities to survive. He met with Lakeland colleges about arrangements allowing students, faculty and staff to ride free. Polk State was the first to agree resulting in free rides for 20,000 students, faculty and staff (costing the college only $3.85 per person per year); vastly increasing the college ridership and saving each commuter an average of 400 gallons of gas a year. Southeastern University and Everest have also joined the bandwagon. An additional goal is a subsidized bus pass for every Polk County middle and high school student, helping students get to school, activities and jobs, costing the county only $2.14 per student per year.

He negotiated a partnership with Legoland. Parent company Merlin Entertainment is the first Fortune 500 company to partner with transit, paying all Legoland employees’ fares, resulting in 64 employee riders becoming 1800 riders per month. “Legoland has put transit on the map.” He designed the “MyRide” plan, a recommendation which will be on the 2014 ballot, tying together transit for 17 Polk County municipalities, unincorporated Polk and Poinciana. He maintains, “If we don’t do something about countywide transportation fast, it is a missed economic opportunity. It is another year of selling short on education and employment.”

He is ecstatic about the Park and Ride Lot that just broke ground at US Hwy. 98 and I-4, allowing people to park their cars to car pool and have bus service along the I-4 corridor and to the two major airports. He created ‘Art In Transit,’ a one week annual event at the Lakeland terminal and on select buses featuring artists and performances, to introduce transit to residents and allow for community involvement.

100_0650_0001He credits his grandfathers for his insights into people and needs of a community. One, a Minnesota state legislator at the age of 22, taught him the importance of service and government. The other, who was a Fortune 500 company CEO, taught Tom about profit and loss and looking out for the shareholder.In his “spare” time, Tom runs every morning and in marathons, does Cross Fit, and golfs.

How does Tom like his new community? “Polk County is a good place to live. If it invests in transportation, it can be a community of a lifetime. It (my job) is big enough to be a challenge while still having time to maintain a family lifestyle. It is easy to get out and make friends. The people are trustworthy and come together.”

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