SARASOTA - Representatives from Sarasota and Manatee counties will work together in a group to study the idea of a single transit system.
The Study Working Group will consist of the two county administrators, Ed Hunzeker for Manatee County and Jim Ley for Sarasota County; Metropolitan Planning Organization Executive Director Michael Howe; and each entity's key senior management staff to discuss and develop recommendations.
The motion to create the group was approved unanimously at Monday's MPO meeting.
Whit Blanton of the Renaissance Planning Group said he looked at other authorities in similar-sized areas in other parts of the country to see what lessons could be learned and applied.
"Very few MPOs out there actually function in the governing capacity of a regional transportation authority," Blanton said. "We found a handful of examples from among the 330 or so MPOs nationwide, and there's a handful of examples that were all pretty much special cases because there were some unique circumstances driving them."
The main driver is a distinction of skills and abilities between an MPO and a transit authority. MPOs set policies, Blanton said. "Whereas a transit authority or an operating agency like that is really interested in getting buses out of the barn every morning and making sure they've got good operating efficiency."
In Las Vegas, he said, the MPO started out and through a change in state law became the regional transportation authority for the area. The authority operates 36 routes and 360 vehicles and carries nearly 67 million riders annually.
"It's a large transit agency," Blanton said. "It operates a full array of transit services."
More relevant locally is the case of Las Cruces, N.M., he said, which is an MPO operating in a more regional context to create a transit authority and then serving in a transitional capacity as the governing body until the local governments created financial and service plans. After that, the MPO will pull back into its planning capacity.
The Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, N.C., is another good example, Blanton said. There are a couple of major cities and four MPOs. The MPO chiefs serve on a board but it's not focused solely on regional transit, and does not operate the transit systems.
Closer to home, in Polk County, Fla., in 2007, legislation created a board to consolidate three transit systems. That hasn't happened yet, but they are meeting informally to discuss it. Representatives of the county and the cities are on the board.
"They are looking at a switch from a property tax-based funding source into a sales tax referendum," Blanton said. "This is a body that legislatively was given very broad powers and duties, including the ability to have a dedicated sales tax or some type of funding source subject to referendum."
Another entity, called the Ocala/Marion TPO, has the city as the fiscal agent but the MPO is the governing board. "It's a potential arrangement you may want to look at," he said. "It's a fairly good model for at least a startup system, and they operate about 10 or 12 bus routes, so it's a little bit smaller in scale than this area, though the population base is pretty comparable."
Howe listed several issues that the Study Group will have to discuss and report on:
Governing authority options
Alternative business model options
Plan for city participation and contribution to a single transit system
Funding strategy and options
Service equity plan
Operational issues including staffing, fleet and maintenance facilities
Guiding transit principles by February or March to integrate into the MPO's 2035 Long Rang Transportation Plan
Interim and transitional steps such as seamless service measures and uniform fares and schedule maps
Ley, the Sarasota County administrator, said the report recognizes the complexities that have to be discussed further. They need to further outline the challenges and opportunities faced in the new system.
Manatee County's administrator said he had worked for a transit authority for 10 years.
"The financial aspects of merging two transit systems should not be underestimated," Hunzeker said. "They are substantial challenges and we'd like to continue to work on them. Both Jim (Ley) and I are committed to the process to make it something that, 20 years down the road, everyone will be happy that they made a decision that was right."
Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said that her county is spending $8 million to $9 million on transit, and that it's important to remember that this process isn't about saving money, because it's not going to.
"Only 18 to 20 percent of revenue covers the cost of transit," she said. And with the transitions that take place on the board, she said she wanted some kind of board in charge of transit. "I'm hoping that we go for an authority that's voted in, that's more stable."
"We have to do it for service," Whitmore concluded. "I really, truly believe that."
Sarasota City Commissioner Terry Turner had questions about the business model.
Howe said there was a discussion about a model other than the counties running the programs or a created authority running them. "There are some models out there nationwide where you can utilize private service carriers to manage the program and report to an authority or board," he said. "That's one of the options."
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