For Delray Beach City Councilman Adam Frankel, it’s time to end the free ride.
Frankel wants the city to institute a $1 fare on the Delray Beach downtown trolley service, saying the move would not only raise money to help pay the system’s operating costs, it would cut down on the number of undesirable riders, such as panhandlers or the homeless who are using free public transportation as mobile, air-conditioned shelters from the South Florida heat.
Instituting the fare, Frankel said, would move the system forward in its goal of creating a more welcoming means of carrying tourists and area residents downtown – an effort that got a boost when the system brought new, more open trolleys into service to replace shuttle buses beginning July 1.
Frankel said he has ridden the new trolleys three times since they came online. Once, he said, he saw someone sleeping in the back of a trolley. Twice, he said, he was asked for money. He said some residents have also reported to him what they suspected were drug deals taking place on the vehicles.
“The intent was to make them more family-friendly,” he said.
He expects his fare proposal to come up for discussion at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.
In a recent story on the idea by WPTV-Channel 5, for instance, some riders said they had seen homeless people on the trolleys, but that they didn’t cause problems. Also, they said, adding a fare to the trolley would add too much to the cost of the commute for riders who already pay for other buses on part of their trip.
But Frankel said taxpayers shouldn’t be paying the full freight.
“If you can identify another form of public transportation that’s free, I’d like to hear about it,” he said. “Gas costs money. Maintenance cost money …”
And drivers cost money, he said.
Scott Aronson, parking facilities director for Delray Beach, said a preliminary review of the grants from the Florida Department of Transportation that helped pay for the new trolleys showed that charging a fare would be permissible, but said conditions attached to money from Tri-Rail are still being reviewed.
He also said the city would need to study whether it would be “prudent” to institute the fares, given complications that might arise from the logistics of collecting money.
“We’re reaching out to other operators to see how they handle it,” he said.
The service has proven popular.
In the fiscal year from Oct. 1, 2010 to Sept. 30, 2011, when it was using shuttle buses owned and operated by an outside contractor, the service carried about 119,000 passengers, Aronson said. From Oct. 1, 2011 to Sept. 30, 2012, that number grew to about 156,000 riders with routes and hours, he said.
For the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the number of riders could reach 160,000, he said.
“We’ve built a very successful commuter service,” he said.
Of course, those numbers wouldn’t necessarily translate into dollars if the free service were to start charging.
“I really couldn’t anticipate what kind of drop in ridership might occur,” Aronson said.
Diane Colonna, executive director of the Community Redevelopment Agency, said the idea of charging fares for the trolleys is worth pursuing, but had some reservations.
“I think it’s worth looking at,” she said. “I don’t know if as much as a dollar … maybe a little less.”
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