Route along Cortez Road corridor connects Gulf beaches to Lakewood Ranch
By KATHRYN MOSCHELLA
LAKEWOOD RANCH -- "It's a long time coming, but thank God, it finally got here," said Gerlean Ferguson, as she boarded the Manatee County Area Transit (MCAT) bus to Lakewood Ranch.
The Bradenton resident, who works at Walmart on Cortez Road, was one of a handful of people who helped christen the new service that began Saturday, extending MCAT's Route 6, which covers the Cortez Road corridor from Bradenton Beach to the DeSoto Transfer Station, Ninth Street West at U.S. 301 Boulevard. Four more MCAT buses have been added to help stretch the ride east along State Road 70, past Interstate 75, to Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.
The new route is especially meaningful to Ferguson, who wants to become a health-care worker, and now she can take the bus to Manatee Technical College's main campus, its Lakewood Ranch campus or Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM), where the service ends at the dental's school's patient parking lot.
"I decided to ride the bus today to see what the new schedule is like and where it's going. When I get off from work, I want to be able to go to college at LECOM and this will be very nice," Ferguson said, adding she is interested in studying nursing or pharmacy.
Manatee County Commissioners approved the route extension earlier this year after extensive public outreach that included workshops, public hearings, comment cards at stations and on buses and a social-media campaign.
Buena Dean, a Bradenton native, said she was part of that public input, calling
her bus ride to Lakewood Ranch on Saturday a historical moment.
"I waited 21 years for this to happen, ever since my oldest daughter was born. The MCAT folks know me personally, because we, as citizens, have to do our part. The people who ride the buses every day need to let them know what's going on. They can't rely on the bus drivers to give them all the feedback," Dean said.
The only complaints Dean expressed about the new service -- which was seconded by Ferguson -- was the lack of visibility seeing the new bus stops along the route, which aren't enclosed. She thought some needed better positioning so riders wouldn't have to walk too far to get to their destination if the weather was bad.
Although Saturday was a bit slow for ridership past the Cortez Road corridor, and the bus made only one morning and afternoon stop at Manatee Technical College near Braden River High School, Andrew Gainey, who has been driving MCAT buses for 14 years, was confident that word will spread quickly.
Gainey, who received some new route training in advance, said Saturday was a good day to test it out.
"This is a good day to try and work the kinks out. We've been having riders ask about this route for quite some time, so once the word gets out, people will use the ride," Gainey said. He expressed confidence that MCAT would add more bus stops to the route as they are needed.
To promote ridership to Lakewood Ranch, MCAT is offering free service throughout January anywhere east of DeSoto Station. MCAT will raise its fare to $1.50 beginning in February. Those who travel frequently by bus can get discounted passes.
Wesley Cook, one of the first passengers to board the Route 6 bus from Lakewood Ranch, wanted to visit Bradenton with his girlfriend. Without the convenience of a car that had broken down, the new route was a welcome relief, he said.
"I'll ride it every day until I get my car back. This is very convenient."
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.