There is such a thing as a free ride in Charlotte County.
The county’s transit system will be free through 2021, most likely, due to the pandemic, said Transit Director Rick Kolar.
It was only a dollar a ride, but now, it’s free, because the county decided it was too risky for drivers and passengers to be exchanging money during the pandemic.
The free ride came up during a County Commission workshop Tuesday, where board members learned that ridership is down about 40% due to the pandemic.
A $4.8 million emergency grant from the Federal Transit Authority will keep the county’s Dial-A-Ride system going for the foreseeable future, Budget Director Gordon Burger said. Unlike other pandemic aid from the feds, the FTA allows the county to keep spending the grant through 2023.
Budgeting is still an issue, however, Burger said, as he described how the county has downsized its buses to cut costs. The program still suffers from lack of visibility to the public, he said. It seems there’s always half the public that does not know the county has a Dial-A-Ride system. It usually requires a day ahead notice, but the transit workers try to accommodate needs.
The county provided close to 90,000 rides in 2019, but with a much smaller number of actual riders. Of those trips, 31% were for employment, 23% for medical visits, 17% for other life-sustaining needs, 19% to meal sites or groceries and 13% for daycare, education or training.
Closing of congregate meal sites during the pandemic has lowered ridership, Burger said. Also, the county must keep the passengers separated on the vans, which lowers the capacity.
Finding bus drivers had been a problem until the county required contractors to raise wages — currently $14.75 — and offer health insurance. But these requirements led to only one company bidding on the next contract, Burger said. That was the current contractor, Ameditrans.
Burger asked commissioners if they would approve removing the health insurance requirement to attract more bidders. They agreed.
“I don’t have a problem with that if that will make it more competitive,” Commissioner Joe Tiseo said.
“Dictating terms to the private sector only drives up cost,” Commission Chair Bill Truex said. “I think we need to go out and do the most efficient buy-in.”
Although they approved the dropping of health insurance, commissioners and staff worried that going too low would lead the county back to earlier problems. Those problems were public complaints about the drivers. An earlier contractor paid drivers only $9 an hour. That led to difficulties finding drivers.
Complaints from the public led the commission in 2016 to require any contractor to offer wages similar to what drivers in neighboring counties were getting.
Commissioners agreed that any new contract had to address the need for responsible drivers.
“If they’re not getting paid enough money to be in a good mood, to welcome people on, to assist them as needed, to drive cautiously and carefully according to the rules of the road ... it does create negative feedback,” Truex said.
Commissioners asked Kolar if most of the drivers were 65 and older, thus having federal health insurance or Medicare. Kolar said some are on Medicare and some are too young.
Kolar said he does not think drivers will be too upset if they lose health insurance. Ameditrans pays them extra if they decline health insurance, Kolar said, so it has led to a confusing system.