MANATEE -- County transit officials are discussing how to pay for a bus route link to Lakewood Ranch by the end of 2015.
Two studies will help guide their work, officials said during a budget workshop Monday.
Transit Division Manager William Steele said he would like to do something sooner, perhaps realigning existing routes.
"It's not fully about additional money," he said. "Lakewood Ranch service would come later."
Steele said service to Lakewood Ranch in East Manatee County could start in late 2015. Transit officials will first appear before the commission with a route recommendation and an approximate cost.
Should commissioners OK the plan, the Florida Department of Transportation would pay 50 percent of the cost for the first three years, but costs would be borne by Manatee County after that, he said.
The existing bus fleet would suffice for such a route, but Steele said he would need to hire more bus drivers.
One possibility is to extend bus service east on State Road 64, then send buses south along Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to University Parkway, Steele said. But he emphasized any route is just hypothetical at this point.
Lakewood Ranch growth has created a demand for a bus line linking it to other parts of the county, officials said.
In February, Manatee Technical Institute dedicated its new, $40 million main campus at 6305 SR 70 E.
Also new to the area is the LECOM Bradenton College of Osteopathic Medicine, and its affiliated School of Pharmacy and School of Dental Medicine, at 5000 Lakewood Ranch Blvd.
"Let's make sure we look at MTI" when considering adding transit service, said Commissioner Betsy Benac.
She and Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said they have seen students take the bus as far as it would go to a mall at University Parkway and Interstate 75, and then walk the rest of the way to attend school where buses did not run.
Manatee and Sarasota counties could jointly hire a single private firm to operate both transit systems, which could help develop Lakewood Ranch bus service, said Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker.
In April, the two county commissions directed their respective county administrators to explore a joint transportation system's potential, and authorized further study of whether one private firm might jointly operate them.
Hunzeker said another joint meeting focusing on the idea of a merger is coming up with Sarasota officials. It could produce efficiencies that would free monies for expansion, he told the commission.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.