This is yet another test

SARASOTA - Almost $1 billion.

That's how much the Florida Department of Transportation district that includes Manatee and Sarasota counties was shortchanged in the past dozen years, according to study results presented to a local transportation planning board Monday.

Had FDOT evenly distributed transportation money statewide between 1995 and 2006, the Bartow-based district would have gotten $950 million more than it did, according to the study by the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research.

The district's 87 percent return rate was second-lowest among FDOT's seven districts, the study said.

That poor showing filtered down to Manatee and Sarasota, which respectively received 71 percent and 86 percent of what they should have gotten during the same time period. That translates into shortages of $191.6 million and $109.7 million.

But there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, one of the study's authors told the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization: FDOT plans to overspend, by $85 million, in the local district in the next five years.

"The district as a whole is doing better in the future," said Steve Polzin, the USF center's public transportation research director.

That was little consolation to MPO members, who noted the district - as well as their own counties - will continue to be shortchanged compared to others.

"We step up, but we still don't get our appropriate share," said Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson, the MPO's vice-chair.

Polzin said FDOT officials put much of the blame on state lawmakers, who often tell FDOT how to spend money regardless of the agency's "fair-share" spending policy. Under that policy, counties should generally receive an amount proportional to the gas tax money they generate for the state.

MPO members said they hope to change that by showing the study's findings to legislators.

"We can use this as a tool in going to the Legislature to seek more money for this district and seek more money for this MPO," said Mike Howe, the MPO's executive director. "This is an empirical, statistical study. There's no interpretation or politics here. This carries much more weight."

The USF study was a follow-up to an earlier one commissioned by the MPO, which sets transportation priorities for the two-county region. The initial study showed Manatee got back just 56 percent of gas-tax revenue it sent to the state during a recent 10-year period.

The follow-up study found FDOT's Panhandle district fared the best, and the Orlando district the worst, in terms of proportionate spending. It also found the Bartow district's spending plans for the next five years heavily favored its more-rural counties, while Manatee and Sarasota were in the middle range.

The MPO, at Manatee County Commissioner Donna Hayes' suggestion, asked Polzin to research whether counties that have enacted the maximum local-option gas tax have gotten less state money than those that haven't. Polzin said he likely would have results in a week.

Also on Monday, two mass transit advocates urged the MPO to form a regional transit agency as called for in a long-range plan. Each county's operation of its own bus system has stymied implementation of the plan's recommendations in the five years since it was drawn up, said Richard C. Thomas and Andrew Noune, president of the Alliance for Responsible Transportation.

"Obviously, trying to coordinate two transit entities functioning under separate county commissions and executives, one the stepchild of the social services department and the other a sideline of the public works department, is a bureaucratic nightmare," said Thomas, a member of the MPO's citizens advisory board.

MPO members said they supported the concept, but that it's a long-term goal. The immediate focus is on better connecting the counties' bus systems and expanding island trolley service, they said.

"We have to take baby steps first," said Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore.