Boca Raton: City may subsidize Uber, Lyft rides downtown

By Mary Hladky

After trying for three years to provide free transportation around the downtown, City Council members have hit on another way to make it available: subsidizing the use of Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services.

They floated the idea on Sept. 9 after council member Andrea O’Rourke expressed concern that the winter season is fast approaching but no shuttle service is available to year-round residents, snowbirds and visitors.

“I fear we are going into another season and do not have downtown transportation,” she said. “I would like to see something offered in our community this season.”

Council member Monica Mayotte and Mayor Scott Singer first suggested that the city could subsidize the cost after reaching an agreement with ride-hailing companies, as other cities have done.

All council members agreed that offered advantages and asked city staff to research the idea and report back.

Council members turned in this direction after hearing a report on how much it would cost to contract for an on-demand transit system.

After getting proposals from a number of companies, city staff gave top ranking to Freebee, which is now providing free rides in electric vehicles in Delray Beach, Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale and other cities.

The city’s request for proposals stipulated that the companies had to offer free rides, a smartphone app and a guarantee on wait time for service. All the companies wanted a city subsidy but would also sell advertising that would appear on the vehicles, said Deputy City Manager Mike Woika.

Freebee would provide three six-seat electric shuttles to service the downtown at an annual cost of $333,590. If the service area were expanded to include more neighborhoods and go east to the beach, the company would provide three of those vehicles, a larger electric shuttle and a Tesla SUV for $616,805.

The company also would service Midtown near the Town Center mall for $417,114 or $684,913, depending on the size of the service area.

“I like the concept, but I don’t like these numbers,” Singer said. “These price tags are too much for me to be comfortable with.

“That is a lot of Uber or Lyft rides,” he said of the cost.

Jupiter subsidized Uber and Lyft for town events, Mayotte said. “It really worked out.”

Subsidized ride-hailing likely would be a short-term solution.

Virgin Trains USA, which wants to build a station in Boca Raton, has asked the city to provide a shuttle service from the station to various locations in the city. If Virgin Trains, formerly known as Brightline, and the city reach an agreement, the station is expected to open late next year.

In addition, council members are considering creating a Business Improvement District financed by downtown businesses to make improvements in the downtown. If a BID comes into being, it would contract with a company to provide a free shuttle service in the downtown.

The city has long sought downtown transit options.

The Downtowner, which operated a free electric car service, left the city at the end of 2016. Other companies moved in but were unable to make enough money with advertising on their vehicles to continue service. At the time, the city would not subsidize their operations. Ú

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