Manatee, Sarasota commissions consider joint transit

skennedy@bradenton.comTApril 17, 2013 

SARASOTA -- At a joint meeting of the Manatee and Sarasota county commissions, the two boards Tuesday OK'd directing their respective county administrators to explore a joint transportation system's potential.

The boards also authorized further study of whether a single private firm might be hired to operate both transit systems.

"We really need to start looking at big-ticket items like this," said Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore.

Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson said simply merging the two systems would be complicated because Sarasota County's financial investment is two or three times more than Manatee County's.

But contemplating a joint arrangement in which property does not change hands and the operator would be the same, she said, "My off-the-cuff opinion is: I kinda like the direction you're going."

The boards also discussed the possibility of a joint effort to improve bus travel by adding new Bus Rapid Transit routes, which would probably run along U.S. 41, linking downtown Bradenton and downtown Sarasota.

Bus Rapid Transit routes are supposed to be better, faster and encourage more

frequent bus travel. They are also supposed to be cheaper to build because existing roads can be incorporated.

FDOT officials also outlined plans for a "diverging diamond"-style for the busy interchange at Interstate 75 and University Parkway. The interchange upgrade would accommodate increased traffic from a new mall now under construction, and from an aquatic center at nearby Nathan Benderson Park. The 3.5-mile widening and reconstruction project would begin north of Fruitville Road to north of University Parkway, officials said. There is no money set aside yet for construction, they said.

That disturbed Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, in whose district the intersection is located.

"There's a lot of people that live off University Parkway that's going to really be affected by the traffic we're going to get hit with," she said. "We do need to move on this and come up with a plan," she said.

The boards also indicated an interest in a joint effort to install a new radio communication network as current systems approach obsolescence.

"We need to migrate to a higher technology," said Wilfredo Miranda, radio communications manager for Manatee's radio division. "Regional coverage would be much better in both counties, in particular with first responders going in and out of both counties."

Sarasota Commissioner Charles Hines said working on a joint system "makes absolute sense. \Both systems are coming toward failure at the same time."

Officials estimate a new system for Sarasota would cost $18.5 million with $15 million for Manatee. Manatee Commissioner Betsy Benac said operating costs would be much lower under a joint arrangement.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.

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