After wrestling with a proposal to give away free bus rides on Earth Day, Friday, April 22, the Volusia County Council ultimately agreed to forgo charging fares on the semi-holiday.
Yet, what may be good for the environment may not be good for the county’s coffers, and that touched off a debate on the fiscal impact of the move.
“If it’s free, somebody still has to pay for it,” Council Member Danny Robins said.
Robins, who said he is looking for ways to trim spending, noted the single day of free bus rides around the county would mean a $6,400 loss of revenue, as estimated by the county administration. The loss would come as he and his colleagues brace themselves for what may be a difficult budget-preparation period.
The county administration had proposed letting anyone and everyone — especially those who do not normally use public transit — get free rides in the hope they would become regular patrons. Earth Day was chosen for the promotion because it is supposed to call attention to the need to reduce pollution of the environment, and mass transportation is an alternative to increasing numbers of private cars and trucks spewing carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons into the air.
Moreover, Votran ridership suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, and county officials say the free rides may attract former patrons and new ones
“This is one way we can support revenue generating,” Council Member Billie Wheeler said.
Council Vice Chair Barb Girtman said waiving the fares may be part of “a re-education of our community” to encourage the use of mass transit.
“If it takes $6,400, it’s a small investment,” she added.
“Sixty-four-hundred dollars seems very, very minimal,” Council Member Heather Post said.
County Chair Jeff Brower came down squarely on both sides of the debate.
“I’m going to push for rollback [in the property-tax rate] again this year, and every dollar counts,” he told his colleagues.
Yet, Brower favored the fare waiver as a sound move to boost ridership and possibly reduce the county’s subsidy of Votran.
Volusia County’s budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year includes $31.2 million for Votran. Of that sum, the county is providing a $5 million subsidy.
The council voted 6-1 for Votran’s no-fare Earth Day. Robins was the lone dissenter.