MCAT's Bradenton bus station: victim of city-county disagreements

mvalverde@bradenton.comJuly 18, 2012 

MANATEE -- Construction on Manatee County's newest bus transfer station in downtown Bradenton looks complete -- it features a colorful 25-foot-tall art mural designed by an international artist, environmentally friendly lighting and restrooms.

What it lacks: buses and passengers.

The station's opening date was once set for June, then July, and now it's unknown. The roadblock? Disagreements between Manatee County and the City of Bradenton about the $1.9 million station's configuration.

County officials believe the station's design and construction, particularly its median, do not leave enough space between the buses as they exit the station. But city officials, who reserved the right to approve that median, say the design is exactly as planned -- and is safe.

Manatee County Area Transit Manager Carl Hunsinger became concerned during functionality tests from mid-April to June, said Nicholas Azzara, Manatee County's information outreach coordinator.

"The issues were discovered at that point," Azzara said. "Carl Hunsinger had the chance to review the functionality of it all at that time and he noticed that the island adjacent to the bus bay was making it difficult for buses."

The median is a blue decorative fence dividing the station into two separate lanes -- one for buses and another one, 12 feet wide, for emergency vehicles and for cars dropping off passengers.

Buses are meant to enter the 13th Street West station from Eighth Avenue, make a slight right turn toward the bus bay and park at an angle to unload and load passengers. Once the bus is ready to go, it then turns left and drives forward toward Sixth Avenue West without backing up, Azzara said.

The station is designed to fit up to five buses at a time. But county officials worry that

the right rear of one bus attempting to leave the station may hit the rear of the bus in front of it, and that the left front of that departing bus may hit the median fence, according to Azzara.

"The way it's set up now ... 'bus 1' would have to go first, '2' would have to go second, the buses behind would have to wait on everything that's in front of them," Azzara said.

In April 2010, the Bradenton City Council approved by a 3-2 vote the special use of that area for the MCAT station. The approval came with seven stipulations attached, including one that stated that "the design of the median separation would be subject to the approval of the Planning and Community Development Director," according to council meeting minutes.

Tim Polk, Bradenton's director of planning and community development, said that when conversations about the station started, there was a lot of research done and specific public art and safety guidelines were put in place.

"We wanted to make sure pedestrians are protected, that's why you have a median fence, to protect them from having conflict with cars and buses," Polk said.

The question of space between the buses was not an issue, he said.

"We left that up to them on the operational side to figure out," Polk said. "That was known, that's how it was designed. First in, first out, that did not change until they had a change in management."

Ralf Hessler, former MCAT manager, was ultimately responsible for design approvals at the county level, Azzara said.

Hessler's employment with MCAT ended in July 2011, and Hunsinger became the new manager toward the end of 2011, according to Azzara.

Hunsinger and county public works staff believe that for safety reasons there should be a space of 24-30 inches between the buses as they drive away. As it stands now, there's about 6 inches of separation.

"There's very minimal room for error under the current configuration," Azzara said.

He said it was "impractical that 'bus 1' would always exit the terminal first," and that such "was the recommendation of the prior MCAT manager, but the current MCAT manager sees that as a safety issue."

But Polk said the county could consider schedule adjustments rather than "spend a lot of money" to "change something that was already approved because they want to make operation changes at the 11th hour."

The project is budgeted at $2.5 million and is being funded through federal and state grants, with a required local match for the state grant. So far, about $1.9 million has been spent.

The Federal Transit Administration provided a $1.5 million grant. As of Tuesday, $1,463,366 of that had been spent, according to Azzara. From the remaining amount, $18,416 have been committed and $18,218 will be used for inspections and project management costs related to the current construction contract.

FTA did not impose a completion deadline for the project and the county has not made any further funding requests, an agency spokesman said.

The Florida Department of Transportation is helping fund the project with a grant of up to $500,000, requiring a local match. The county has used $395,000 of that grant money available, Azzara said.

Another estimated $89,000 had also been spent by the county, he said. The land value is part of the county's matching contribution.

Polk insists that the station is safe and will work, far better than the existing stop by the Manatee County Courthouse.

"An operational procedure is the concern that they're having now. ... If they really want to make it work, they can make it work," Polk said.

Azzara said there are often unforeseen delays with buses due to bad weather, passengers with fare issues and other matters.

"Scheduling is not the problem here, it's the width," he said.

This week there will be a new round of tests with hypothetical configurations, according to city and county officials.

One of the solutions proposed by the county is moving the median fence to the west.

Bradenton's fire and planning departments would have to agree on those changes, Polk said.

"We all have to agree on relocating the island, right now we do not agree with MCAT or the county until we see the tests," he said.

Any design and construction changes would also need the approval of the Bradenton City Council, Polk said.

A price tag on any additional project modifications will be determined after the hypothetical tests are completed, Azzara said.

"At that time they'll have a firm idea of any costs associated with making it right, and from there we'll determine if grant dollars are available, who should pay and how we should share those costs," he said.

Miriam Valverde, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamValverde.

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