Bus-merger talks hit the skids

MANATEE — Manatee and Sarasota counties should stop any further talks about combining their bus systems, at least for the time being, each county’s top executive said.

Consolidating the systems is not feasible in the current economic and political climate, according to Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker and Sarasota County Administrator Jim Ley. The counties instead should continue exploring other ways to better link their systems, they said.

That’s the recommendation that will be given Monday to the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planing Organization, a bi-county board of elected officials that oversees transportation planning and sets priorities.

“They certainly understand the interest (in consolidation), but with the economy and uncertainty with transportation systems, they don’t feel it is prudent to more forward at this point,” Michael Howe, the MPO’s executive director, said of Hunzeker and Ley.

Neither administrator immediately returned telephone messages left with their offices Friday.

A 2001 MPO study had recommended creating a single bus system, possibly by merging Manatee County Area Transit and Sarasota County Area Transit. But the idea has gained little traction.

Last year, the MPO created a study group to take another look at the idea. The group, which consisted of Hunzeker, Ley, Howe and top officials of MCAT and SCAT, met in January.

According to Howe’s report summarizing that meeting, the group recommended against further pursuing the idea for several reasons, including:

n The potential cost of consolidation during tight budget times.

n Uncertainty on whether the state Legislature would create a “transportation mobility fee” and also allow counties to seek voter approval for a transportation surtax.

n Questions about whether voters would approve any tax increases or other funding for mass transit in the current economic climate.

“It’s just not a good time right now,” Howe said.

Instead, the group said efforts to better connect the separate county-run systems should continue. Those efforts include a jointly operated route between Palmetto and Sarasota; connecting the Anna Maria Island trolley with SCAT on Longboat Key; and the nearly completed development of a fare card that can be used on both systems.

The administrators said they would support looking at other options, including preparing joint transit development plans; developing a “fast bus” between Sarasota and Palmetto; and jointly applying for state and federal grants.

Howe, who said he agrees with the group’s recommendation, said the MPO likely “won’t take an up or down” vote Monday because it has no power over the county bus systems.