MCAT gets an earful as Manatee County Commission considers proposed fare and route changes

skennedy@bradenton.comJune 16, 2014 

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A Manatee County Area Transit bus picks up passengers in Bradenton in this 2010 file photograph. Officials are considering bus routes to Lakewood Ranch. File Photo -GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

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MANATEE -- After months of in-house study and public comment, transit officials Tuesday will ask the Manatee County Commission to raise most fares for riders on local buses.

If the commission approves, fare hikes will help pay to extend service on Manatee County Area Transit's Route 6 east from DeSoto Station along State Road 70, providing a new east-west, cross-county corridor linking the Gulf beaches to east Manatee County and Lakewood Ranch for the first time.

Fare increases are expected to generate $253,212 annually, according to Ryan Suarez, Manatee County transit division planning manager.

The transit agency operating budget for its fixed route service this year is $6.5 million, with funds coming from users, county coffers and state and federal subsidies, he said.

The agency also wants to realign Route 16 to connect to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and provide more transfer opportunities for riders on buses operated by its neighbor to the south, Sarasota County Area Transit.

Manatee residents would get a new flexible bus route through northern Manatee County stopping at the Palmetto Station, Holy Cross Manor and the Rubonia Community Center, among other stops.

New fares would take effect Oct. 6.

Cash fares would increase from $1.25 to $1.50, a day

pass would increase from $3 to $4 and monthly passes would go up from $30 to $40, MCAT officials said. Weekly passes would drop from $15 to $12 and a 25-cent transfer fee would be eliminated. A new half-fare discount for active and retired military personnel is also being proposed.

The transit agency heard plenty from the public, which vocally aired its views via online surveys, email messages, comment cards, social media sites, and during public meetings this spring.

Most people agreed with the proposed changes, but 8 percent to 12 percent "strongly disagreed" with various survey questions.

Typical was a website survey where 103 respondents described how they felt about new fares to help fund expanded service. About 38.8 percent agreed, 28.2 percent strongly agreed, 13.6 percent disagreed, 11.7 percent strongly disagreed and 7.8 percent were neutral, according to MCAT documents.

Comment cards and emailed messages included such sentiments as:

"Just can't wait for this to happen!"

"Please start ASAP!" and

"Awesome ideas."

A listening session April 2 at Manatee Technical Institute drew dozens of students anxious for bus service along State Road 70.

One person wrote: "MTI students ride MCAT to the Walmart on S.R. 70 E., where other students and sometimes faculty pick them up to continue the journey to MTI. Students who don't find anyone to take them either walk or ride bikes 3.1 miles from Walmart to MTI."

A proposal to extend service to Rubonia, north of Palmetto, drew mostly positive comments, especially the idea of a flexible bus route.

But Rubonia residents also said they need bike racks on the buses to help them get where they need to go, and also suggested bilingual bus service fliers.

Bus passengers filled out comment cards, one of which said, "Run buses later. We have been asking for this for 20 years. Run buses on Sunday. It is fine to raise fares."

Julie Ames, commenting on proposed new service to Holy Cross Manor, an apartment complex across the street from Holy Cross Church in Palmetto, wanted to know: "Will there be a bench with a shelter at the bus stop?"

There were plenty of dissenters, such as one who commented: "I think raising fares will cause less people to use the bus services; most of us can't afford the higher fees."

And: "The taxpayers lose on public transit. I have personally sat at Goodwill the hub to transfer to Sarasota -- no ridership. I have been at the hub at the sheriff's, no ridership. For what riders we have, why not park the buses and just offer vans?"

Changes to Route 16 would take effect Oct. 6, but those looking forward to new service to Lakewood Ranch have to wait until early next year, pending commissioner approval of the county's proposed $527 million budget in the fall, officials said.

Two public hearings on the fare and route changes are slated for 10:15 a.m. Tuesday at the Manatee County Administration Building, 1112 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.

The flexible bus route in Palmetto and north of the city would start early next year as a pilot program with a limited schedule five hours a day, three days a week. It would be a combination fixed-route and door-to-door service, in which buses would run a fixed schedule, but could also pick up riders at their residences.

"I feel like we got a lot of positive feedback," said Suarez. "We went out to locations affecting the most people -- Holy Cross, Rubonia -- and the majority welcome the changes. For folks who don't have service at this point, this is definitely a positive."

"You do get a mixed bag, with Sunday service people constantly clamor for. It is in the plan. It's just we can't do everything right now. We must tackle one thing at time," he said.

In addition to Sunday service, many bus passengers want later and more frequent service, Suarez said.

"It's a work in progress. We're never going to be completely done, but we're doing our best to try to do what we can to improve service with the resources we have," he said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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