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Commissioners discuss future of area transit at workshop


BRADENTON - Trying to find a way to hook up the regions' transportation systems sounds easy - until you try to do it.

On Tuesday, Manatee County commissioners at a workshop heard about ideas for creating a regional transportation system that would provide seamless service in Manatee and Sarasota counties, and offered their own vision of what kind of system they'd like to see.

From greater cooperation between Sarasota County Area Transit and Manatee County Area Transit to commuter rail connections to the port connector to something as far out as having buses branded as TBARTA (Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority), the ideas flowed like the coffee in the corner of the room.

But one thing that won't be flowing any time soon is the lubricant needed to get many ambitious plans and programs off the ground: money.

Michael Howe of the Metropolitan Planning Organization said it's still worth it to look at transit options and the idea of the workshop is to explore long-range plans.

"Let's look at transit more seriously," he said.

Whit Blanton of the Renaissance Planning Group said the MPO is working on a plan that goes out to 2035, and that there are many available funding sources, such as using impact fees to pay for a bigger and better system.

"We would like to have a long-range plan that's financially feasible," he said.

The issues, he said are stronger linkage to congestion mitigation and looking at the core transit service in the two counties to reach the areas that need it most. Of course, funding is an issue for expansion of service, both along existing routes and to Lakewood Ranch.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore pointed out that it has to be done for the right reason.

"Most of us here do support transit and think it would make sense to have a regional system, but the reasons should come from a desire to improve service," she said. "I would not like to see us go forward without the cities and both counties agreeing that they have to have a financial risk in this."

Commissioner Larry Bustle said he's in favor of transit, but there's a lot of work to be done.

"It makes sense to have those two working together and coordinating and cooperating," he said. "It shows a commitment on the part of our two-county area."

Commissioner Ron Getman said that while transit is needed, his concern is about spending millions of dollars and seeing few results. Maybe, he said, the solution is some kind of public-private entity or a subsidized private-sector company that could do the job.

"Surely, there are alternatives we can consider." he said.

There are alternatives, noted County Administrator Ed Hunzeker, but there's a reason that private companies exited the public transportation business after World War II: there's no profit in it. Raise the fare enough to even break even, he said, and people stop riding. Keep fares affordable and you get good ridership, but the government has to subsidize it.

"You just can't make any money at it. That's why there's so much federal money in it," he said. "It's going to take public money to make it happen."

"I would like to focus on results, not process," said Commissioner Joe McClash. "We've been around this issue many times."

Years ago, he said, routes that made sense like No. 99 were created which link Sarasota and Manatee counties on U.S. 41. There is a regional system, he noted, and maybe the systems aren't married, but they can act like they're "hitched."

We have a good system here and a tremendous asset in mass transit, McClash said, and the issue is if it can be turned into an advantage.

Commissioner Donna Hayes has been a vocal proponent of bus service to Lakewood Ranch, and she said that they're going to have to sell these ideas to the public.

"Transit costs the taxpayer money," she said, with 20 percent of the funds needed coming from the fare box.

Another factor the county needs to consider, said the MPO's Lowe, is global climate change. Recent orders have said that they have to consider global warming when planning transportation. Transit is a mitigating factor to help with air quality, he said.

Blanton added that it's also a legislative requirement in comprehensive plans.

Looking ahead

Asked what they'd like to see in the future, the commissioners offered some predictions of better times than are apparent now.

Getman said he wanted to see commuter rail service to Fort Myers and major metropolitan areas so workers can travel far for jobs. McClash added that service to Miami and Orlando could help the state, and also said that transit systems could be an economic revitalization tool.

Commissioner John Chappie said he was on board with rail, and that connecting to Sarasota and Venice is key, but he's worried about creating another agency.

Bustle said he hoped to see the port connector working and the economy "cranked up and working hard." The port, he said, is the key to the region.

Hayes said funding would be the only reason she'd support anything. Rail sounds good, she added, but they have to be realistic. She said she wanted to see more interconnectivity between Manatee and Sarasota counties, with perhaps light rail in the future.


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