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MPO to study bus consolidation

SARASOTA — A regional transportation planning board took the first step Monday toward possibly consolidating Manatee and Sarasota counties’ bus systems.

The Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization told its staff to research the possibility of creating a regional transit authority, with MPO members serving as its board.

“I think we should get creative,” said Sarasota County Commissioner Shannon Staub, the MPO member who proposed the concept. “I think this would be a way to do it.”

Officials have long debated whether to combine Manatee County Area Transit and Sarasota County Area Transit. An MPO-sponsored study done in 2002 recommended better-connecting the two county-run systems, with the ultimate goal of combining them under the umbrella of a regional authority.

Officials have made progress on the former, with MCAT and SCAT jointly operating a route on U.S. 41 and Manatee’s island trolley and SCAT now connecting on Longboat Key. But officials have been hesitant to tackle consolidation for various financial and logistical reasons.

The creation of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority and greater state and federal focus on mass transit makes the time right to revisit consolidation, some MPO members said Monday.

“Being part of TBARTA, we don’t really have any other choice,” said Manatee County Commissioner Larry Bustle, saying the seven-county authority is forcing officials to take a regional approach toward transportation.

A larger, consolidated bus system also could better compete for state and federal transit grants, supporters said.

But other MPO members advocated waiting until after the economy recovers to explore the possibility of a regional transit authority.

“We are moving too fast on this,” said Longboat Key Commissioner Lee Rothenberg, the only MPO member to vote against the idea. “It should be put off to a more advantageous time.”

The MPO did not give Michael Howe, its executive director, a time frame for reporting back his findings. Howe said he plans to meet with officials of both counties and their transit systems as part of his research.

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