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Manatee County is seeing bus ridership steadily rise nearly a year after making it free

Interior of the bus, which has some seating and a large screen showing information
Sky Lebron
/
WUSF Public Media
MCAT serves about 130,000 riders each month, with another 6,000 utilizing the county’s paratransit services.

Interim Transit Division Manager Chris Deannuntis says ridership has gone up 14% when compared to this time last year.

Nine months in, Manatee County Area Transit (MCAT) officials say it's happy with the results of making most of its buses free to ride.

Most routes on the transit system have required no bus fare since late last year.

Since eliminating the bus fare since November 2022, Interim Transit Division Manager Chris Deannuntis says ridership has gone up 14% when compared to this time last year.

He says the transit system serves about 130,000 riders each month, with another 6,000 utilizing the county’s paratransit services.

"I've come from transit systems in the past that ridership was decreasing, even before COVID,” Deannuntis said. “A lot of those systems are now increasing after COVID. But this system of 14% increase in growth is unheard of when it comes to transit."

 Chris Deannuntis standing at the entrance of the bus as it gets prepared. A long blue bus with an art piece that looks like a sun on the side.
Sky Lebron
/
WUSF Public Media
Passengers are currently counted through a button that the drivers press, but that will soon be fully removed in favor of automatic sensors that count passengers.

He says making the buses free for riders gives low-income residents more opportunity.

"Since it's free, they can take as many trips as they want during the day,” Deannuntis said. “They don't have to limit themselves. I think we're getting new riders as well. People that never rode in the past, because they're maybe so low income that they can't afford to ride and they're beginning the ride."

No identification is required to get on an MCAT bus.

Passengers are currently counted through a button that the drivers press, but that will soon be fully removed in favor of automatic sensors that count passengers.

Deannuntis says the transit system is looking to expand its mobility-on-demand services to some of the outlying areas of the county that don’t have fixed bus routes, like Lakewood Ranch and Parrish.

The transit system is losing out on about $750,000 it would normally get from bus fares, which a previous official said only accounts for about 5% of the agency's full operating budget.

The program will sunset after 18 months, with the Manatee County Commission ultimately deciding if the free bus trips will remain permanent in the county.

Deannuntis said while he knows the free rides are helpful for the community and he’d like to see it elsewhere, he understands that the county is in a unique situation.

“We have very limited service on Sunday, while others transit systems, like the Miami Dade or Broward County transit [systems] run all day long,” Deannuntis said. “So we're starting to look at providing more service, but providing more service means you need more funding. So it's a benefit, but there are costs involved, and you need to consider those costs.”

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