May 8, 2019

ISLAMORADA — A transportation firm that offers free rides on Upper Matecumbe Key may lose its subsidy from the village.

Freebee launched its Upper Matecumbe service in late November after the Islamorada Village Council approved a transportation grant of up to $80,000 to jump-start the Freebee operation for six months. The contract expires at the end of May.

“I would not recommend continuing to fund it,” Village Manager Seth Lawless told council members April 25.

Council members also voiced misgivings about renewing the contract because of costs and lower than expected ridership. No formal vote was taken.

“I like the idea, but I don’t like funding a private business like that,” Vice Mayor Mike Forster said.

Freebee operates two electric-powered minibuses that run Thursdays to Sundays on Upper Matecumbe, considered Islamorada’s “downtown.” Rides are free for passengers who request service on a smartphone app or call on a regular telephone line.

Islamorada council members agreed to the initial Freebee subsidy as a way to reduce traffic on U.S. 1, provide a service for residents and visitors, and lower the community’s carbon footprint.

The for-profit company relies on selling advertising on its vehicles for a significant portion of its revenue stream. Freebee co-founder Jason Spiegel in 2018 told Islamorada officials that as advertising increases, financial support from the village would decrease.

“The cost per ride is double or triple what you can get for an Uber,” Lawless said April 25. “Advertising revenue is nowhere near where [Freebee] projected it would be.”

“My opinion is that they haven’t done enough to promote themselves,” Mayor Deb Gillis said. “They don’t have enough advertising and the ridership isn’t what we want or they want.”

“It was a good try,” said Councilman Jim Mooney, who noted that several local resorts now offer their own shuttle service for guests.

Spiegel was surprised to learn of the council’s comments. “This is news to me,” he said Monday.

Freebee’s service has been limited to Upper Matecumbe because the small five-passenger vehicles run mostly on the Old Highway and cannot cross bridges that link Islamorada’s four islands.

“Until they can cross the bridges, it’s a fail,” Councilman Ken Davis said.

kwadlow@keysnews.com