County Commission Looks at Fare-Free Bus Transit

Dennis "Mitch" Maley
BRADENTON — At Tuesday's meeting, Manatee County Commissioners voted 5-2 to instruct staff to bring forward a presentation on a pilot program to test shifting MCAT bus services to a fare-free format in order to increase usage while aiding traffic congestion and parking issues.

The item had been requested by Commissioner George Kruse, who said he'd been looking at the idea for some time and that it came back on his radar when Congressman Sam Graves (R-MO) recently visited Port Manatee. Graves is the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Kruse explained that Graves had mentioned that much of the transportation funding available at the federal level was not geared toward building roads so much as improving multi-modal transportation and mass transit, leading him to believe that there would be opportunities to tap federal funding once a program was established, making it cost-neutral. Kruse pointed to the popular AMI trolley as evidence that fare-free makes a significant difference in user enthusiasm, especially on short trips.

Kruse said that the growing move toward fare-free has been led by cities that discovered how little of the fares collected actually hit the bottom line, citing an Austin, TX study that found a net collection of only 14 percent. Kruse said that by the time change is dropped into a fare box, transferred, deposited, and audited, it doesn't make sense to slow routes and impose collection duties and safety issues on drivers, especially if it is limiting usage. 

Of the approximately $20 million the county spends on transit, Kruse said that only about $1.18 million in gross fares are collected, leading him to believe that the county's net is probably under $200,000—a negligible portion of total costs. Kruse said that the fact that the department is currently facing the significant cost of upgrading fare boxes makes the timing of a pilot program ideal, a point to which County Administrator Scott Hopes agreed.

"I look at this as a low-cost, high-impact potential for Manatee County to take cars off the road (and) allow us to do things like we've talked about like lowering parking ratios for affordable housing," said Kruse. "Because if you have easier, cheaper—in this case free—transit, you can encourage more people to stay out of their cars and utilize it, which allows us to lower parking ratios, which makes land cheaper and development cheaper for affordable housing. You know, if we start treating transit like infrastructure instead of like a service, I think you're going to start seeing a massive improvement in people's lives, especially people who need it when gas is $3.50-$4.00 a gallon and people have to go further afield in the community to go get a job to pay them a wage that covers their rent."

Commissioners Reggie Bellamy, Misty Servia, Carol Whitmore, and Vanessa Baugh expressed openness toward Kruse's suggestion and indicated they would be in favor of exploring a trial run. Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge said that he was not a hard yes or no on the idea, but wanted to learn more from transportation staff as to what the numbers would look like.

Commissioner James Satcher provided the most strident opposition, offering a rambling and largely incoherent explanation that touched on everything from oil and gas pipelines in middle America to the fact that many of the cities utilizing fare-free structures were run by Democrats.

Kruse chided his fellow commissioners who seemed to suggest free transportation was akin to socialism by comparing it to other services the county provides with tax dollars without charging user fees, such as parks and boat ramps. 

Speaking "about the free giveaway thing," Kruse said he was "trying to help people get to work so they could become employed and make wages in Manatee County, if anything, that's the most conservative thing you can do is encourage someone to work and make money on their own."

Kruse added that he hadn't heard anyone calling for "skin in the game" when keeping county-owned and operated boat ramps free of launch fees. "Some things, it seems like we should be giving away left and right," said Kruse, "but when it comes to getting on a bus to get medicine for your kid, all of a sudden it's socialism."

Several members of the public came forward to support the program with one chiding Satcher, who bills himself as a pastor, for his lack of empathy. Satcher responded that he wasn't opposed to some sort of temporary, need-based grant program, adding a clumsy analogy about scholarships to bible school.

Commissioners ultimately voted 5-2 (Satcher and Van Ostenbridge dissenting) to have staff bring back a presentation for the board's next meeting on an 18-month fare-free pilot program to begin at the start of the next fiscal year on October 1.

Reader Comments
Cat L
SEP 14, 2022  •  It's a strange feeling to be in alignment with this bunch on anything. What's with this "being reasonable and practical" stuff? I'm a little unnerved... Except for Satcher, he's vile, embarrassing and obsessed with strippers.
SEP 14, 2022  •  Kruse is actually endearing himself to me. Showing concern about working class people, and making sense! Sounds like he spent time researching this and wants to help people. Then you have that ingoramous Satcher rambling about socialism while his church is basically a tax shelter. Who's really the socialist?
SEP 14, 2022  •  Let's see how this works out? Sounds like a great idea, but not for most residents. I would imagine the worst-case scenario would be the homeless using the free service. Most of them it is their choice to be career homeless without paying taxes or contributing to the community. Some are not mentally stable enough to make others want to be within their 'space'. The other serious issue would be the timings of the buses, long wait in between pickups and the fact that someone (?) decided that all the covering over the bus stops are not needed. So who do you imagine would give up driving their A/C filled cars to sit in the HOT sun for a bus?! Plus most of the bus stops are not in an area feasible for most people and the double wait times going and coming back. Time will tell if my comments are the outcome of Kruse's brainstorm?
SEP 14, 2022  •  I watched some of yesterday's commission board meeting at my desk (not something I typically do) and OH.MY.GOD!!!! is Satcher always this painfully dense!?! What on earth did the residents in that district see in this guy??? I mean.... seriously??? Anyone who lives in that guy's district and has never watched a meeting, I DOUBLEDOG DARE you to replay yesterday's meeting on YOUTUBE. Just go on ahead and FastForward to every time that oaf opens his mouth.
SEP 14, 2022  •  "Commissioner James Satcher provided the most strident opposition, offering a rambling and largely incoherent explanation..." Too bad you couldn't imbed a video so we could see and hear this idiot Satcher at his finest. I suppose he "thinks" that helping poorer residents with needed transportation is "socialism." Well, Stacher, that's right, it IS socialism. And so are the very roads we all drive on.