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Manatee County is seeing a rise in bus ridership as it makes fares free

A blue and orange bus headed down a road with a front sign reading "North to Rubonia"
Manatee County Area Transit
The Manatee County Area Transit has 14 fixed routes, and nearly 100 total buses.

Use of Manatee County Area Transit buses has increased around 18% over the last year since the free rides started Nov. 1.

Manatee County made its bus system free for riders beginning in November, and early data shows the change is leading to an increase in usage.

Since the bus fare was eliminated for its fixed routes Nov. 1, the ridership for Manatee County Area Transit buses has jumped around 18% when compared to November 2021.

Jason Harris, the transit division manager for the bus system, says the yearly operating costs for the bus system is around $20 million. Money collected from bus fares didn't make a large dent in that cost.

"We did a study of the fair collections from all the boxes,” Harris said. “And typically, we're around $1 million in fare recovery, so that's really that's only 5% of the total budget."

Harris says the bus system will also save some money by not having to process all of the bus fares on a daily basis.

“We're delegating ticket sales, we're running reports, we're looking at counting coins and bundling those for the bank,” Harris said.

Harris says the free rides are providing relief to people struggling financially, especially after Hurricane Ian, which hit the area hard.

"Even though it's only $1.50, there's some situations where $1.50 is something that you have to think about,” Harris aid. “And by going for free, it takes that thought process right out of it, and it provides access in those types of situations."

He said the idea stemmed from the success of the Anna Maria Island Trolley, which has been a free option.

“We're moving kind of away from it just being a service,” Harris said. “This is part of the infrastructure of Manatee County. It’s something that many surrounding counties haven’t implemented, so we're kind of out there on the fringe, and we feel confident enough we can really pull this off.”

Harris said success of implementation in Manatee County could lead to speaking with other transit agencies that are interested in making their own systems free.

Harris also says they're hopeful it results in less traffic and pollution.

The Manatee County Transit Area has 14 fixed routes, and nearly 100 total buses.

Only Route 99 between Manatee and Sarasota still has a bus fare. Harris says the goal is to eventually make that route free as well.

This pilot program will last 18 months and expire in 2024, but Harris says it could be made permanent, depending on data that's gathered over the next year.

“I can just tell from some of the feedback I get from the drivers that the community loves it,” Harris said.

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