Collier County's cash-hungry bus system will tap into a money making source it has somehow avoided for more than a decade: advertising.
The Collier Area Transit will start selling ad-space this fall on the insides of buses and transfer stations and will play audio commercials during routes.
The advertisements should give the 13-year-old transit system needed funding to help increase the frequency of trips and expand routes and hours.
But not everyone is on board. Strict limits against public billboards, signs and advertisements are part of what sets Collier County apart from the rest of southern Florida, Commissioner Donna Fiala said.
"If we start letting the appearance of our community look like something you would find on the east coast then we're going to lose our appeal for a lot of people," Fiala said. "This is going to cheapen the appearance of Collier County and I don't think there's a need."
Fiala cast the lone vote in late June against selling the ad space. The advertisements won't be allowed on the exteriors of the buses, benches or any place seen by the public at large.
They will generate about $230,000 a year, according to county projections. While the transit will never be self-sustaining, the idea is to reap as much money as possible from users and advertisers within the system to stretch how far the county can take the federal and state tax money it gets, said Michelle Arnold, director of the county's alternative transportation department.
"We have to match a lot of the state and federal grant dollars we receive," Arnold said. "And right now we can't keep up with the two demands we get on a regular basis: to increase the frequency of service on routes and to provide later service."
About half of the transit's $6 million-a-year cost is paid for with federal and state tax money. The rest is funded by money raised from local gas taxes and rider tickets -- a full fare is $1.50.
Passenger fares pay for about 22 percent of the system's total cost, which is just below the state average of 26 percent for Florida's 32 public transit systems, state records show.
System officials need to do more to shift funding burdens from taxpayer subsides to bus users, said Sam Saad, chairman of the area's metropolitan planning organization and a Naples city councilman.
"Advertising inside the buses is good, but the system still has long way to go to be an effective alternative means of transportation," Saad said. "It's only touching a small segment of the population. If we're going to have a bus system that's paid for by the entire population then there needs to be a more direct benefit."
Ridership has been steadily increasing since the transit began in 2001, reaching a high of 1.3 million passengers in 2013.
The buses stop running at 7:30 p.m. and some routes have 45-minute or longer gaps between trips.
The county has kept costs lower than average in Florida, according to Florida Department of Transportation records.
It costs $86 per hour of operation or $5 per mile traveled to run Collier's entire transit system, compared to the Florida average of $107-an-hour or $7 per mile.
Lee County's transit system, which picks up nearly three times the passengers as Collier's with a bus fleet that's three times as large, has kept expenses down to $82 per hour of operation.
Lee's transit system has been selling advertising both inside its buses and on benches, bus stops and shelters for years. The demand for interior advertising -- what Collier is planning to do -- hasn't been great, said Joann Haley, Lee's marketing manger.
"It's only been marginally successful for us," Haley said. "You can't charge a lot for the limited audience because we don't get a lot of demand from businesses that just want to reach bus riders. On our benches and shelters where people, cars and pedestrians can see them, it is, without a doubt, better."
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Haley said Lee County generated $434,080 in revenue from advertising, including $267,418 from advertising on benches.
Now that the interior advertising program is underway, Collier County should start looking into selling space on bus exteriors, benches and terminals, Commissioner Fred Coyle said.
"That's the way Barron Collier earned his fortune to buy all the land in Collier County," Coyle said. "He started out selling ads for buses and trolleys up north. I think that could be reasonable way to raise more money."
Copyright 2014 - Naples Daily News, Fla.