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Officials Question Sustainability of Sarasota, Fla.’s Electric Shuttle Program

The popular, free electric ride-sharing service required a funding boost last year to get rolling. City officials are concerned with another funding request from the operator.

(TNS) —  SARASOTA, Fla. — City commissioners called into question the long-term solvency of Sarasota's popular free ride-sharing service amid concerns it might need another subsidy.

The city last year agreed to spend close to $340,000 to help jump start iRide, which provides free rides around downtown and the Rosemary District seven days a week. But the service's creator says it might need an additional $77,000 to close a financial gap. The city agreed to disburse the original amount to Gotcha Group, which operates the service, over a period of two years, according to city documents.

The iRide program launched a year ago with a fleet of seven electric vehicles, and the original plan called for drivers to be paid by tips only. The service had to pivot to paying drivers, because riders rarely tipped, which contributed to the budget shortfall, Gotcha CEO Sean Flood told the City Commission Monday.

"There has to be a give and a take of what we originally intended for this to be a year-round fully operating system that runs the full hours," Flood said.

The service has provided 50,000 passenger rides, translating into 30,000 trips in its first year, Flood said. That equates to keeping about 4,700 vehicles off the road every month, he added. Flood operates similar services at 150 locations nationwide, none of which are financially independent, he admitted.

"How can you come to us with a contract and sell us on this thing being self-sustainable in two years when you know full well that that's not a model that is occurring anywhere else?" Commissioner Hagen Brody said.

"I have very, very low confidence that this will ever be sustainable without a government subsidy," Brody later added.

Commissioners also voiced concerns about the service's iPhone and Android app only being functional for a fraction of the year, when the original contract between the city and Gotcha Group stipulated the app would be available immediately. Failing to have an app for much of the first year likely caused ridership to plummet, commissioners said.

"We should get a credit in year two for the time that the app didn't work, because now we're having to look at doing a subsidy to adjust," Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch echoed the mayor's sentiment.

"We do have a significant issue with our traffic and our transportation, especially with demand going out to the island and some other places. However, I don't think that this is what this was supposed to solve," Ahearn-Koch said. "I think it's one piece of a bigger network that was supposed to play its defined role. I think you did it successfully. I think you would have been much more successful had the app worked."

Flood, who began Gotcha in 2009 as a service offering free rides at Florida State University, said tourists during season in addition to year-round residents use the service to go grocery shopping, restaurant hopping and even catch rides to work. The iRide vehicles can be hailed on the street, using an app or by calling 941-444-2585.

Despite the need for a subsidy, Flood insists his service is the most cost-effective method for the city to provide transportation and reduce traffic jams.

"Buses in the transit world are what serves your outer core," Flood said. "I think transit like this is what solves real problems for a city at a significantly lower cost per hour of operation."

The commission did not commit to subsidize the additional money Flood projected iRide would need in its second year. Instead, City Manager Tom Barwin suggested Flood and city staff work on ways to close the budget gap and see how the city could be compensated for the app failure.

©2018 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.