MANATEE COUNTY -- Following months of public hearings and extensive outreach that used surveys, the Internet and social media for public feedback, the Manatee County Commission on Tuesday approved a range of fare changes to ride county buses -- a move that will pay for modifying existing bus routes, adding new routes to Rubonia and Lakewood Ranch and offering more flexible services.
In a 5-2 vote, commissioners approved new bus fares that will take effect Oct. 6 to help fund the Manatee County Area Transit operating budget, expected to exceed $8 million for the 2014-15 fiscal year. Commissioners Michael Gallen and Robin DiSabatino cast the dissenting votes.
The tradeoff for some increased fares, as County Administrator Ed Hunzeker pointed out, is an expansion of services without raising taxes. Plans call for extending bus routes along State Road 70, which will provide a new east-west, cross-county corridor linking the Gulf beaches to East Manatee and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard. There is also a proposal to extend bus service to Rubonia, north of Palmetto on U.S. 41.
These new routes should begin next year following approval of the county's pro
posed budget in the fall, according to transit officials.
The fare changes include:
The basic fare will increase $1.25 to $1.50. There will no longer be an added transfer fee of 25 cents.
The cost of a day pass for unlimited rides will increase from $3 to $4.
The cost of monthly passes, which will be for 31 days instead of the current 30, will increase from $30 to $40.
Weekly passes will drop from $15 to $12.
Veterans will be eligible for half fare.
The commission also approved a realignment of the existing Route 16 bus route that will begin in the fall, linking the DeSoto Bus Station in Bradenton via 15th Street East to the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport for the first time.
Before the fare modification vote, Commissioner Betsy Benac questioned what she says appears to be a drop in bus ridership. Ryan Suarez, Manatee County transit division planning manager, says they are striving for an increase.
"About 14 percent of our operating budget comes from ridership revenue, and we want to get that up to 20 percent, which is comparable to other cities the same size as ours. We are also taking a look at federal grants to help fund the service modifications for the coming year," he said.
"It's an economic burden on those that can least afford it," DiSabatino said "It penalizes those going to work, single moms and older people who do not qualify for discounts."
It goes against the policy of encouraging people to use buses rather than cars to get people off the road, she said.
Bradenton resident Lee Redfern, who rides the buses daily, said she wants existing services improved first before asking riders to pay more.
"We can't have a growing economy without a free-flowing workforce that can work every shift," Redfern said. "This is a wrong-headed approach. We've got to improve our existing routes and make sure the routes we have are helping the most people."
Commissioner Carol Whitmore suggested to transit officials that there be a regional bus ridership card to streamline the cost difference for those who travel to work daily from Manatee to Sarasota County, where bus fees are higher.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.