MANATEE -- As construction moves forward with the new 880,000-square-foot Mall at University Town Center, Manatee and Sarasota county leaders are proposing new bus routes to University Park and Lakewood Ranch.
The new routes will accommodate mall employees, students and bus riders who want to shop at the mall and in the plazas along University Parkway, an area that will become a major shopping and entertainment destination for Manatee, Sarasota and surrounding counties.
Manatee County officials Tuesday said a proposal to jointly operate Manatee and Sarasota transit systems has stalled. But the two counties, plus the mall's developers, are doing plenty on their own to create new routes that aim to offset traffic issues and provide better service for riders.
To better serve Lakewood Ranch, Manatee County Area Transit is planning to expand Route 6, which now starts on Coquina Beach, travels along Cortez Road
and ends at DeSoto Square mall. The new route would extend from DeSoto Square to Fifth Street West and then along State Road 70 to Lakewood Ranch Boulevard. It would be MCAT's first route that travels east of Interstate 75 into Lakewood Ranch.
"MCAT has not yet determined the number and locations of potential stops along S.R. 70," said Nick Azzara, Manatee County spokesman, in an email. "They're first going to be taking the plan to the public for input and then returning to the (county commission) for consideration before making more detailed decisions."
Bus riders will have to pay for the extra service. Cash fares would increase from $1.25 to $1.50, a day pass would increase from $3 to $4 and monthly passes would go up from $30 to $40, MCAT officials said.
The flexible bus route would start as a pilot program with a limited schedule five hours a day, three days a week, said William Steele, county transit division manager, adding that it would be a combination fixed-route and door-to-door service.
Buses would run on a fixed schedule but could deviate to pick up riders at their residences, he said.
The county commission must approve any bus service or fare changes. The proposals are still in a preliminary stage and assuming the commission OKs the plan, new fares and service improvements will take effect in October.
Eva Rey, Lakewood Ranch Town Hall executive director, said Lakewood Ranch residents haven't shown much interest in the bus route, but businesses are excited about the possibility of new customers.
"What I have heard is positive comments from business owners regarding the colleges. That it would actually be bringing people into the area rather than moving Lakewood Ranch residents around," she said. "It would boost our local economy, bringing in part of the workforce, bringing people to the universities."
For example, students at Manatee Technical Institute's main campus on State Road 70 and at its East campus on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard would have easier access. Maura Howl, MTI spokeswoman, said the route would bring new students to the school.
"We are very excited about this route. We were used to having service to our campus when we were located on 34th Street, and we've really missed it," she said.
Meanwhile, Sarasota County has also planned a new route to help resolve traffic concerns at Interstate 75 and University Parkway, all while luring new visitors to the area.
"We identified the route as an area that was going to need service because of the mall coming and the (developing) Lakewood Ranch area," said Glama Carter, Sarasota County Area Transit director. "In order to alleviate the traffic congestion, we're adding this route. In addition to that, the economic development and employment opportunities coming with the new mall."
The route will make the following stops:
Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
Walmart on Lockwood Ridge Road and University Parkway.
The Mall at University Town Center.
Keiser University and Everglades University.
The State College of Florida's Lakewood Ranch campus.
Lakewood Ranch Medical Center.
The new Route 30, which has been five years in the making, was approved March 5 by the Sarasota County Commission and will be implemented by July, Carter said.
The new route will cost $714,369 to operate annually. SCAT received a $524,091 federal grant to help offset the cost. Still, SCAT will have to cut back on other services to pay for the route. Buses will no longer run after 10 p.m.
Route 30 will run every hour from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Ridership projections are not yet available, Carter said.
Although a Sarasota-Manatee joint transit system has been discussed, negotiations between the two counties have been postponed. Carter said she feels optimistic that a partnership will come to fruition.
"We look up to Manatee County to be our partner in this. We are in constant communication with them," she said.
Mike Finney, a board member on Lakewood Ranch's Community Development District 2, said he welcomes the route, citing that it would dissolve traffic concerns at the I-75/University Parkway interchange as ridership grows over time.
"When I've talked to individuals ... they've agreed that public transportation is a good thing," he said.
The State College of Florida's Lakewood Ranch campus is looking forward to having a stop right at school.
"We're excited because it allows more of our students to benefit from the expanded classes, student support services and programs, including Saturday College and flexible schedule classes, offered at SCF Lakewood Ranch," said Donald Bowman, vice president of student affairs, in an email.
Aside from the two new routes, Manatee's Benderson Development Co., whose shopping plazas blanket University Parkway, is planning to roll out a trolley service in partnership with Taubman Centers, the operator of the Mall at UTC, which opens in October.
An exact route hasn't been finalized yet, said Mark Chait, director of leasing for Benderson.
"We're working out all the details currently," said Octavio Ortiz, mall general manager. "We know it's something we're going to have to implement."
-- Staff writer Sara Kennedy contributed to this report
Sabrina Rocco, University Park reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.