Manatee, Sarasota commissions discuss transit collaboration efforts

Sarasota County Area Transit and Manatee County Area Transit busses share a stop in this 2010 file photograph. 
 File Photo-GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald
Sarasota County Area Transit and Manatee County Area Transit busses share a stop in this 2010 file photograph. File Photo-GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

MANATEE -- Traveling on the region's transit system may soon get a little easier for Manatee and Sarasota County residents.

The two counties may become the first to implement Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority's regional fare project, which would allow riders to load money onto a smart card and travel regionally, said William Steele, Manatee County Transit Division manager.

At a joint meeting Thursday, Manatee and Sarasota County commissions discussed transit collaboration efforts but there was no mention of a proposal to jointly operate Manatee and Sarasota county transit systems.

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is scheduled to award the contract for the regional fare project at its December meeting and then Sarasota and Manatee counties would execute the interlocal agreement with the agency in order to launch the pilot program, Steele said.

Once fully implemented, all seven transit agencies within Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority will participate.

"It facilitates travel throughout the region," Steele said. "Everything we learn can benefit the region."

Manatee County Area Transit and Sarasota County Area Transit are also preparing to launch an universal pass program for University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee students, faculty and staff. Steele said USF would purchase transportation for a fee from both systems and participants could board with an ID card.

"It facilitates ridership growth, expedites boarding and also has the ability to expand," Steele said.

As season approaches, Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines asked the county administrators and staff to come up with some ideas to address congestion.

"We are all very aware of the traffic that occurs during season going on to those islands," Hines said. "What can we do to at least help alleviate some of these issues through our public transportation?"

Hines suggested additional routes and offsite parking and encouraging resort and restaurant employees to park off the island and take the bus to work.

Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac said: "Park and ride is one of the solutions we needed to try and resolve some of the congestion issues we have."

Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson said she's not sure, based on the population in Longboat Key, they are going to be able to get them out of their cars.

"There is only so much you can do if you have a culture of folks that aren't going to get out of their car," she said.

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh suggested looking at other alternatives.

"There is nothing wrong with looking," she said. "I try to go to the beach from Lakewood Ranch on occasion and it's a problem. I would certainly get on that trolley."

Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.