MCAT, SCAT unveil joint bus fare card

MANATEE — Manatee and Sarasota counties’ bus systems unveiled a joint fare card Monday, allowing passengers to pay one price to ride both systems for the first time.

The R-Card, or regional card, is the latest move by Manatee County Area Transit and Sarasota County Area Transit to better connect their separate bus systems. But officials said it doesn’t represent another step toward possibly merging the county-run transit systems, as some have advocated.

“With the introduction of the R-Card, it’s one more feather in the caps for both systems in terms of collaboration,” said Jason Harris, SCAT’s business data analyst.

The new swipe card gives unlimited riding privileges on both MCAT and SCAT routes for 30 days after it’s first used. Previously, passengers had to buy a separate fare card for each transit system.

The R-Card sells for $60, but disabled persons and seniors with a Medicare or Gold card can buy one for $30. The $60 sales price is a $10 savings from the combined regular price of MCAT and SCAT’s monthly unlimited-ride passes, which will continue to be sold.

Officials expect commuters and students who frequently cross the county line, especially along a U.S. 41 route jointly operated by both agencies, to be the R-Card’s primary users.

“It makes it easier for people and makes it more attractive for people to use public transportation,” said Michael Howe, executive director of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The MPO, which oversees transportation planning and sets priorities for the two-county region, has long suggested consolidating the two bus systems to improve efficiency and the odds of getting state and federal funding.

A 2001 MPO-sponsored study said both systems should be put under a new regional operating authority by 2009.

But officials of both counties balked, and agreed earlier this year to halt further talks because of the economic and political climates.

Instead, they agreed to continue looking for better ways to link their systems. Those efforts thus far have resulted in the jointly operated U.S. 41 route, connecting the Anna Maria Island trolley with SCAT on Longboat Key and the R-Card.

Both Howe and Harris said no further consolidation talks have been held since then. Ralf Heseler, Manatee’s transit director, was sick Monday and could not be reached for comment.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.