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Sarasota County buses — a good deal for most; a GREAT deal for some …

At 75 cents a ride — almost a third of what folks pay in many other parts of the country — Sarasota County Transit Authority (SCAT) offers local folks one of the few good deals they get in this ever-more-expensive town.

And the fare used to be even lower. Up until fall of 2007, the regular one-way bus fare was only 50 cents.

Of course, the fare is even lower than that if you’re a County employee … in that case, it’s a completely free ride.

Yup, that’s right. Sarasota County employees can ride the SCAT buses for free, anytime, anywhere. Not just to go back and forth to work, but to go to the movies, the Farmer’s Market, the beach … wherever.

Sarah Blanchard, Senior Planner for Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) told me during a telephone interview last week. “If you work for Sarasota County government,” she told me, “you can ride for free on Sarasota County area buses.”

The County encourages its employees to take advantage of this perk, Blanchard told me, “We’re really trying to encourage that – we’re working to encourage ridership of County employees.”

And it’s not just County employees. It’s Sarasota City employees, Venice City employees, and North Port City employees. Maybe more government entities are granted this free pass, but that’s just what I found in a cursory search on the subject.

When the County announced its proposed fare increase in 2007, they were careful to specify that it would affect everyone, including persons with disabilities and the elderly. I wrote at that time (in my column in the Pelican Press) that I thought the County might have mentioned in its press releases that the single biggest block of potential bus users — roughly 2,500 County employees at that time – would continue to be given a free ride, despite the fact that fares would be increasing for pretty much everybody else.

Now, I’m not saying County employees don’t deserve a free ride … heck, I’d like one too. And I can see the many benefits – commuter congestion reduction, auto emission reduction, maximizing a public service by running fuller buses — of encouraging County employees to ride the bus, especially back and forth for the work commute.

But $1.50 round trip, 365 days a year? For any purpose whatsoever?

If 2,500 County employees availed themselves of that perk once a day for one year, the County would be giving away something in excess of $1.3 million in fares. And that’s possibly at a minimum.

Even if only 25% of County employees, and others to whom the free pass is granted, utilize the bus system and use it strictly for traveling to and from work in one calendar year, that’s still a not-too-shabby estimated $235,000 in free rides.

I don’t know, this is a tough one for me. On the one hand, I’m happy someone is getting a break. On the other hand, I’m thinking … aren’t the Joe and Jill Schmoe taxpayers of Sarasota County the ones who are essentially paying for the free rides of County employees?

Blanchard told me they don’t have numbers yet on how many County employees are utilizing the free rides, but she believes the County has recently begun trying to track utilization of this employee benefit.

It’d be good to know, wouldn’t it? Heck, maybe only three County employees are using it and the cost is negligible, but what if 1,000 county or city employees are using SCAT simply to commute Monday through Friday all year long? Isn’t that still costing Sarasota taxpayers a fairly hefty chunk of change? — maybe $375,000?

Look, I’m a fan of mass transportation. I’ve ridden the T in Boston, the Metro, bus, and RER in Paris, and the subway in New York. SCAT seems to be providing a pretty decent deal and green alternative for a great many in our local community. Seems like at least once a day, I see a SCAT bus tooling through town with a bike or two in its rack.

Blanchard confirms that observation. “In our first quarter of our fiscal year for 2009 [October 1 through December 31, 2008], we had a 26% increase in ridership over the same period in the prior year,” said Blanchard. She attributes the jump in SCAT riders to the increased services which began approximately a year ago, such as running buses on Sunday, increased frequency along some routes, and expanded night-time services. All that, combined with the high gas prices of last summer, seems to have motivated more Sarasota County residents to try SCAT, Blanchard said.

“Once they came over to the bus system,” Blanchard says, “they saw that it was frequent and convenient and something they could use for transportation.”

With all the increased service, I asked Blanchard if SCAT users would see another rate increase. She says no increases are currently being contemplated. “We raised our fares in October, 2007,” she says. “Still, we have one of the lowest fares in Florida and in the nation.”

Fair enough. But still. Just a suggestion here.

Why not give free rides every day to the hard-working, tax-paying folks of Sarasota County who have lost their jobs in the past year or so … and are out pounding the pavement for work … instead of giving a free pass to County employees who at least still have a job?

Posted on February 27th, 2009Comments RSS Feed
3 Responses to Sarasota County buses — a good deal for most; a GREAT deal for some …
  1. Hey Mary Catherine,

    Seventy five cents seems quite a bargain. Trenton area buses’ base fare hasn’t been that low in about two decades. No discounts for any government employees, either. Not that I expect one.

    I see that there is a vacant position on the Citizens Advisory Committee on Public Transportation in your neck of the woods. Perhaps you should apply for that opening. Who knows, maybe a chance to for you to improve public transit?

  2. Great idea MC..”you are going to need a bigger bus”

  3. John W. Perkins
    March 1, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    I like to take the bus to see a city from a different perspective than when driving a car. When we drive, we are focused on the drive itself an not on the scenery. You can discover shops, cinemas, and parks that you would normally have never seen.

    The best public transportation has got to be San Francisco’s. There’s the underground BART system that takes you all over the area (the movie THX 1138 was filmed down in there), the regular bus service all up and down the peninsula and across the Golden Gate Bridge, those historic and charming cable cars are a blast, and my favorite of them all are the ferries that run across and up/down the bay (Bar at the aft end of the boat) is a great way to see the sights.


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