MANATEE -- Manatee County officials say they may raise fares for Manatee County paratransit services in order to keep up with hikes in demand.
Ridership on Manatee County paratransit buses used to peak in March of each year, but the county is now providing the same level of service year round.
This year, Manatee County Handy Bus has seen a 10 percent increase in demand for service over last year.
But with the continued increase in demand, resources are limited, forcing many bus drivers to work into overtime, according to Chad Butzow, deputy director in the county's public works department.
"We are not adding service level as quickly as demand is rising," Butzow told commissioners during a work session Tuesday.
As a possible way to be able to add drivers, or operators, county officials are proposing a rate increase in the Handy Bus programs. The county, which charges $1.50 each way for its fixed routes, would increase Americans with Disabilities Act services to $3 each way. County staff is also proposing rate increases in other services, including Transportation Disadvantaged Services and Veterans Transportation, which would generate an additional $78,700 in fare revenue.
This fall, the county is planning to gauge the public's position on the proposed changes by engaging stakeholders and using social media. The county will then review the results with the commission in January with possible implementation next March.
But adding an additional operator isn't going to solve the big picture problems, Butzow said.
"It will fund something, but it's not your long-term solution," he said.
The challenges with the county's paratransit services are not unique as they are similar to other areas of the county.
"It's not an easy time to be a policymaker when you are faced with these kind of challenges," Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac said.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she was mixed on a rate increase.
"It's a double edged sword," she said. "It's hard to come up with that money when you make $800 a month. That seems like nothing to some and a lot to others."
While some other counties may tie requirements to financial need, none of the county's current eligibility requirements are financial, according to Butzow.
"As long as you have the medical need, you become eligible," he said. "We provide a very successful, a very satisfied customer-based service especially with our door-to-door services."
Benac said they want to provide the services to those who need it the most.
"It makes sense that we want to serve the most needy with this program," Benac said.
William Steele, transit division manager, said Manatee County has a disability model versus one with financial requirements.
"We are recommending that that's something we should pursue in the future for the transportation disadvantaged to make sure we are hitting the folks that really need it because they can't afford transportation on their own," he said.
But the county has to deny some trips because of lack of resources, according to Ryan Suarez, planning manager.
"Trip denials were much higher in FY15 compared to each month in 2014 except November," he said.
In July 1, the county implemented a pilot project to allow riders to do prepaid fares as they move toward an account-based system, according Suarez.
"It's been well received," he said. "We are trying to bump up our numbers. Hopefully we will be able to roll this out in full sometime this year."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.