MANATEE — The convoluted courtship between Manatee and Sarasota counties’ bus systems continued Tuesday, with Manatee County commissioners remaining cautious of a possible union.
Commissioners again expressed ambivalence about potentially consolidating the two county-run bus systems, but told their staff to continue exploratory talks with Sarasota County officials.
“I’m not totally against it, but I’d like to see some ideas,” Commissioner Carol Whitmore said during a 75-minute work session, the latest in a long-running debate about whether to combine Manatee County Area Transit and Sarasota County Area Transit.
A Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization-sponsored study done in 2002 had recommended better-connecting the bus systems, with the goal of merging them under a regional authority by 2009.
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 connecting on Longboat Key. But officials of both counties have been reluctant to tackle consolidation for various financial and logistical reasons.
Encouraged by a renewed federal and state emphasis on mass transit, the MPO told its staff in March to research the possibility of creating a regional authority with MPO members serving as its board. The MPO is a transportation-planning board comprised of elected officials from both counties and their cities.
Part of the MPO’s research is learning what each county’s officials want, and don’t want, in local mass transit’s future, said Michael Howe, the agency’s executive director.
Commissioners gave him varying responses.
Commissioner Joe McClash was the strongest skeptic of consolidation, saying both counties instead should continue to cooperate in linking their bus systems.
He suggested re-branding the jointly operated bus route on U.S. 41 as a regional route, possibly under the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority’s banner.
Commissioner Larry Bustle said local officials “need to change our philosophy” on density and urban sprawl to foster more transit use.
Officials also should look into attracting private enterprise to invest in mass transit, Commissioner Ron Getman said. Commissioner John Chappie said he was undecided on consolidation and needed more information.
But all agreed it will be difficult to merge the systems without broad support.
“I would not want us to go forward ... without the cities and counties agreeing,” Whitmore said. “You all know how we tend to disagree on things, and this is not going to be an easy thing to do. We all need to buy into it.”
Howe said he, and an Orlando consultant working on the consolidation issue, plan to meet with Sarasota County commissioners next week, then report their findings to the MPO in late October.
Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.