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Mass transit or mass bottleneck?


You're trapped in another traffic jam, late again, and cursing the gods while you inch along to your destination. What's a commuter to do?


Relax, read, and ride a Manatee County Area Transit (MCAT) bus to work and home.


Manatee County Area Transit
  • Monday-Saturday 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Bus fare: $1.25
  • Seniors (60+): $.60
  • Rider Information: 749-7116
  • Online: www.mymanatee.org (click on MCAT)

We all know mass transit uses less carbon-based fuel than cars; it's also an efficient way to help the poor get to work. In the past 12 months, MCAT transported 1.6 million passengers, a 12 percent increase over the previous year.


America's love affair with the car is expressed by how much more we drive than other citizens around the world. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 90 percent of trips in the United States are made by car, compared to 58 percent in Britain.


The Nation magazine reports that there's a built-in bias for highway construction versus mass transit, causing malignant urban sprawl to Parrish, Myakka City and all pastures east.


County Commissioner Donna Hayes represents east Manatee County, and is a strong supporter of mass transportation. "It's a lot easier to buy a bus than pay for roads," Hayes says. "For instance, it cost $1 million per lane mile, while a bus cost a little more than $300,000."


Hayes serves as the county representative to the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority, which is working to produce a comprehensive plan for the seven area counties.


By working together, Hayes believes, this cooperation will create an urban spine route for private cars, light rail and rapid bus transportation, negating urban sprawl.


The person responsible for the county's mass transit system is MCAT Director Ralf Heseler, who is from New York City, possibly one of the planet's most transit-challenged metropolitan areas. "We're trying to create a system in Manatee County that's an appealing alternative to using a private car," Heseler says.


MCAT has 25 buses, each costing $330,000, and paid for by the federal government.


Also, MCAT has six trolleys that provided 500,000 free rides on Anna Maria Island last year. In addition, a whopping 100,000 rides were given to citizens eligible for door-to-door services by the county para-transit system's 27 mini-buses.


The irony of increasing popularity of bus riding in Manatee County, in a time of diminishing funding of public transportation, is another paradox of The Great Recession.


Money is less available because of Florida's dwindling revenues. This crisis of high gas prices and low government finances leaves transit riders stranded, because bus fares only pay 20 percent of the transportation cost.


MCAT director Heseler struggles to maintain his cheerful outlook in spite of tough economic times. The current MCAT budget is $8.5 million.


"We have been told our budget will be cut this year," Heseler says. "That means we will not be able to provide the needed services for our residents."


No area is immune to budget cuts. Perhaps America's crown jewel of mass transportation is the Washington, D.C., Metro system that moved a record 1.5 million riders to President Barack Obama's inauguration. The city is experiencing a $176 million shortfall that will force service cutbacks and a loss of 900 jobs.


While ridership nationwide has increased 6.5 percent, metropolitan areas from New York City to San Francisco are cutting back their service due to a loss of money from taxes.


It's so bleak that in St. Louis they had to put 165 buses in mothballs because there's less money for fuel and drivers.


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