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Authority putting out call for public input

MANATEE — An authority that’s developing a master transportation plan for the Tampa Bay region is planning a major final push to get public input, but likely won’t get a large response.

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority plans to call 320,000 residents in seven counties, including Manatee and Sarasota, in the coming weeks. Its goal: to hear, from as many as possible, what they think about a proposed system of trains, buses and highways connecting the region.

“In one shot, we can potentially reach more people than all of our workshops and presentations put together,” Grace Carlson, an authority spokeswoman, said Wednesday.

The calls are part of eight iTownHall meetings that authority members will host between Monday and May 13. Manatee’s meeting is 7 p.m. May 6, with County Commissioner Donna Hayes and Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston as the hosts. Sarasota’s meeting is set for May 5.

For Manatee, the proposed plan envisions bus-only lanes on U.S. 41 between Sarasota and Bradenton, express bus service on interstates 75 and 275 through Manatee, and buses running every 15 to 30 minutes on State Road 64 between Lakewood Ranch and Anna Maria Island. The plan contemplates commuter train service between Bradenton and Sarasota in the future.

For each meeting, computers will call 40,000 randomly chosen telephone numbers in the authority member’s home county or city and play pre-recorded messages inviting residents to join the live conference call, ask questions and voice their opinions.

Residents can opt out of the phone meetings and go to the authority’s Web site, www., to review the proposed plan, ask questions and leave comments. Those who don’t receive a call can still participate by calling 877-269-7289 and entering 14837 when prompted.

The telephone meetings, frequently used by Congressional members to hear from constituents, will cost the authority $30,000. Carlson said that is money well-spent, considering the potential number of people that could be reached and compared to the cost of holding a traditional public meeting.

But such conference calls typically generate little public interest. Based on similar calls done elsewhere, the authority expects just 800 to 1,200 people to actually join each meeting.

When combined with the nearly 14,000 people who already have attended authority events and presentations, that means less than 1 percent of the region’s 3 million-plus residents could have a say on the plan before it’s likely adoption in late May.

Despite that, “we are tremendously satisfied with the level of public participation and input we have received to date,” Carlson said. She said public input has been low because of more pressing issues in people’s daily lives, such as keeping their jobs, feeding their families and paying their bills.

Even after the plan is adopted, the authority will continue its public-outreach efforts, she said. And residents probably will take greater interest and become more vocal as the authority delves deeper into specific projects.

“People get more engaged when the issues hit closer to home,” Carlson said.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.