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Brody Blasts Subsidized i-Ride Program for Cutting Service

MELISSA REID
Associate Publisher
mreid@lbknews.com

Sean Flood, CEO of Gotcha Group, LLC which operates the i-Ride program in downtown Sarasota, presented his company’s financial summary for the year at this week’s City of Sarasota workshop meeting.

The company signed a two-year agreement with the City of Sarasota to operate the i-Ride program in downtown Sarasota, for which it received a subsidy from the city for $338,747.50.

Flood gave a review of the costs and logistical issues during its first year of i-Ride’s operation. In sum, according to Flood, the i-Ride program is anticipated to have a funding shortfall of $77,469 by the end of its two-year contract with the City of Sarasota.

“I wanted to share the financial overview. The idea is we would begin selling sponsorship and advertising, and would operate paying the drivers in a tip-only situation and then in two years it would be up and running and self-sustaining. What we looked at is the high driver turnover rate. We made a decision to pay the drivers because tips were not being done often enough to make it worthwhile to keep the high standard of drivers. When people weren’t tipping, the quality of people we were able to hire went down and there was a higher turnover. So we had to start paying drivers. We had to put in the budget $85,273 to pay the drivers’ salaries. However, we exceeded our ad revenue projected in our budget for our first year by 75 percent,” said Flood.

The budget in the agreement with the city estimated the advertising revenue for i-Ride to be $70,000, but the company earned a total of $122,450 in ad revenue.

Commissioners questioned Flood on some of the decisions the company has made regarding the i-Ride program, and some of its problems. One of those problems was  that the app for i-Ride didn’t work for the first 9 months.

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert said, “When we brought you on, the contract said you already had an app. It’s said it’s still not operating properly.”

Flood assured the commissioners that, “It is working, I have used it today and it has been working. A lot of the issues we had is that we had an outside boundary area and the app was not built to handle the boundary of where you could order the ride.”

Commissioner Hagan Brody and Mayor Shelli Freeland-Eddie had concerns regarding the viability of the Gotcha Group being able to make the i-Ride program self-sustaining, let alone profitable.

“I don’t feel like we should be subsidizing this. I can’t help but think you’re in material breach of the contract by reducing the number of vehicles that are operating at a given time. The contract states that you have to come to us if there are any adjustments made. Are you asking us to increase the subsidy?” asked Brody.

Flood responded, “I take that very seriously. We take our partnerships very seriously. We have agreements with 150 cities. We’re very proud of our service we have provided over the past year. We have had monthly meetings with the city to discuss the service and we have asked to adjust the budget as we went along monthly. Because people were not tipping, we had to make adjustments.”

Flood suggested that the Gotcha Group could meet with city staff once a month and look at what the shortfall is and see how the company is performing on ad revenue and see what the difference is.

“I don’t know that there is a model that is 100 percent ad revenue driven. I think transit like this is what solves problems for a city. I think this type of transit can move people at a lower cost than other methods,” concluded Flood.

Freeland-Eddie had funding concerns as well.

“My concern is that although we’re using CRA funds, the vehicles can only go a certain amount of speed and can’t go to through the larger roadways. I think that public transportations isn’t what it should be. We could have some connectivity to other areas as well as downtown. I’m sorry the app didn’t work, but I feel like we should get a credit for the money, and I think we shouldn’t take the number of vehicles off the road. It doesn’t make sense that there’s still a deficit because of the advertising increase. We made a contract to use all the vehicles and all the vehicles should be on the road. I think there are some systemic things that can be improved, and I think it’s a good thing because we’re taking cars off the road. Are we really pulling cars off the road, if they’re parked anyway? I’m looking for the additional data that makes me feel better about this,” said Freeland-Eddie.

Alpert was convinced that the micro-transportation of the i-Ride is a good thing and that a lot of residents are positive about using the convenience.

“All public transportation is funded by government. I’m in favor of it,” said Alpert.

Although no action is required by the commission at a workshop, Brody made his decision clear.

“Coming and asking me and asking us for more money; I’m not okay with it, I’m not going to vote for this. I’d much rather see an open-air trolley that can also go to the barrier islands. I think they’ll be fine paying a couple extra bucks for an Uber,” said Brody.

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