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Fare-Free Program for Manatee Buses Gets Extension

Written by on Thursday, March 14, 2024

The program seems to be doing its job — increasing ridership.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Mar. 13, 2024

Host: The fare-free program started in September 2022, and it is still called a “pilot”. But the Manatee County Commission gave it an 18-month extension at their meeting yesterday, two months before it was to sunset. Allowing MCAT passengers to hop on the bus for free has produced a big spike in ridership, and with that, Manatee transit is dashing way ahead of Sarasota, which has seen much slower recovery since the pandemic. Our news team has this report.

Johannes Werner: “Choice riders” are people who could take their car, but decide to use the bus or train instead. They are a prized target clientele for transit planners, particularly here in Florida where bus riders tend to be low-income. One of those choice riders spoke up during public comment at the Manatee County Commission meeting yesterday.

Choice Rider: I’m really happy with the buses, them being free. I’ve had a situation that occurred. Thank you, Flynn, for bringing me here. But I had a look at a bus schedule, because my car is in the shop and I was gonna be here rain or shine, one way or another, for this meeting. And so I decided, Well, you know what? We have free buses. Why not utilize them? 

But I’ve never used a bus before, so I have no idea what our routes are. I have no idea where to pick up. So I went to Manatee County website. I went to the area for the transit. I even downloaded that little download thing. I couldn’t figure out what bus I needed to get on, where it was going to go or how to even get to this meeting.

So that’s me not, you know … and I tried to read as much as I could. So, I think somebody needs to look at that again because people that have never utilized this stuff, it’s very difficult to utilize. I will tell you after an hour and a half, I did realize I needed to be on bus 8 and transferred bus 99 just to let you know.

JW: While she was complaining about obstacles, the fact that someone like her actually considers taking the bus speaks to the success MCAT has had since it started its fare-free program in fall 2022.

According to County Administrator Charlie Bishop, the Manatee bus operator has seen a 50% rise in passengers since the start of fare-free. Comparing financial year 2022 to 2023, ridership is up a still-robust 35.5 percent, and that is even more special considering that transit operators in big metro areas throughout the United States are struggling to return to pre-pandemic ridership numbers. It is also a contrast to neighboring Sarasota County, where the transit operator actually increased bus fares last year. Sarasota has seen a much more moderate ridership recovery since the pandemic shutdown.

MCAT’s success prompted the county commissioners at the meeting yesterday to extend the fare-free program by another 18 months, beginning May 1. They did so without discussion, as part of the consent agenda.

What is their reasoning and goal? Here’s how county spokesman Bill Logan answered our question: “The fare-free pilot program demonstrates Manatee County government’s commitment to all county residents by promoting public transportation in an effort to reduce traffic congestion and protect the environment.

“It is anticipated that this will help bring more riders on board. The Board of County Commissioners wishes to continue to provide this valuable service to its residents for up to 18 months and reassess the program at that time with more data.”

Does the elimination of fares come at a big cost to MCAT? Not really. In the last “normal” year before the pandemic, the bus operator collected just above $1 million through fares. That makes up a less than 10 percent of MCAT’s annual budget. Asked about details, the county spokesman referred to a document MCAT submitted to the county commissioners. That document explains that stopping farebox collections generates savings, but it doesn’t say whether that’s enough to replace the million dollars in farebox revenues.

Asked about what kind of new passengers have used MCAT, and what routes and times have seen the biggest spikes, a county spokesman suggested we ask passengers. The MCAT document says that bus drivers complain about QUOTE “overcrowding” of buses on Route 99, the backbone of the system that shuttles people from downtown Bradenton to downtown Sarasota, along US 41.

To be sure, MCAT is still far away from convincing car owners to leave their set of wheels in the garage. Almost 90 percent or riders asked in an on-board survey in November 2022 said they had a household income of less than $50,000.

Could the fare-free program be made permanent? Here’s what the county spokesman said: “That could happen. The Manatee County Board of County Commissioners has the authority to make that decision.”

Reporting for WSLR News, this has been Johannes Werner.



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