Joint Manatee-Sarasota transit system proposal stalled, official says

skennedy@bradenton.comMarch 12, 2014 

Manatee and Sarasota buses pull into the downtown Bradenton transit station Wednesday afternoon. Manatee and Sarasota county area transit systems had been exploring a joint operation, but the effort seems to have failed, according to Manatee County officials.TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/Bradenton Herald

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MANATEE -- A plan to jointly operate Manatee and Sarasota transit systems has stalled, Manatee County officials said Tuesday.

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore asked Tuesday about negotiations with Sarasota County on a proposal to hire a private firm to jointly operate the transit systems.

"It doesn't appear a partnership with Sarasota is in the making at this point in time," said Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker.

Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson, reached after the meeting, said: "It's unfortunate we've not even had a chance to discuss the matter with them."

Hunzeker told Whitmore that Sarasota officials preferred to study their transit system, rather than launch a joint operation.

They invited Manatee to study its transit system, too, but Hunzeker said: "I think it's an unwarranted expense."

He recommended Manatee County's professional staff continue to look at better operating arrangements on its own.

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said working together would save both counties tax dollars.

"So, it is a shame, and I was very disappointed to hear they wanted to do a study," she said.

Patterson, reached by the Herald after the commission meeting, wasn't sure what Sarasota study her Manatee County counterparts were discussing.

"It may be a study to privatize or not," she said. "It's taken a turn our board didn't expect because Manatee County has decided to privatize."

"I personally don't rule that out as a possibility, but I'm not sure that that's the correct order to discuss it in," said Patterson.

There are two separate issues, she said: Get together to run a joint system; and make a decision on whether to privatize.

"They seem to put the privatization as the first, and we aren't ready to make a decision yet whether to privatize or not. If they go the route they're talking about, we would have the option of joining with them at a later date if that were so decided," she said.

"We might want to see them privatize it, and see if it works well for now, since they've put themselves at the head of train," Patterson said.

Transportation planner Jim Van Pelt said some companies specialize in taking transit systems private.

But he added a caveat: "I have heard that if you think it's going to cost you less, you're thinking wrong."

Mike Howe, Van Pelt's colleague at the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, suggested the two counties could still discuss improving efficiencies and trying joint ventures.

The two counties already operate some joint bus routes.

With Manatee planning new Lakewood Ranch bus service, and Sarasota planning a new University Parkway route, riders could benefit from more transfer points, said Van Pelt.

"I'd like to see them get more transfers, have a regional fare card for all routes," said Van Pelt. "It would all come out in the wash, with a regional card in Sarasota or Bradenton, (riders would) be able to transfer, but not pay a whole other fare."

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

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