Sarasota and Manatee counties might merge their two public transit systems, especially if it means saving money.
According to the public transportation planning manager of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), both county commissions might be willing to explore the idea, especially if it means getting the transit systems out of their budgets.
"If they could find an alternate form of financing, they would most likely be inclined to combine the two," said Bob Herrington. "If they could get revenue from a committed tax source, then the counties could free up money for their budgets."
Public transportation is not a money-maker for governmental agencies,he added, and like all Florida counties, Manatee and Sarasota are strapped for cash.
Herrington said the MPO Public Transportation Task Force, which meets every three months, was formed to look into merging the two systems.
The two systems, Manatee County Area Transit (MCAT) and Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT), already work together on two routes – route 99 that runs U.S. 41 from Palmetto to Sarasota and the new trolley service that runs from Coquina Beach into the city of Sarasota.
Ridership and budgets on both systems were discussed at a recent Public Transportation Task Force to the MPO meeting.
When SCAT Representative Phil Leiberman gave his report on ridership, he said ridership was up 29 percent in December 2008 over a year earlier and it was up 5 percent overall. He spoke of the new trolley route through Longboat Key.
"The Longboat route is still up there," he said, "It’s not breaking any records, but we’re up."
Leiberman said the increased service to 30 minute headways was one reason for the increase over the old bus service.
"It’s season now," he said. "With the 30-minute service, we expect to break some records.
MCAT Director Ralf Heseler reported a 12 percent increase in ridership for 2008 over 2007. He said their traditional yearly increase had been 4 percent. He attributed the increase to several factors.
"The price of gas, the new amenities and the increased level of service," he said. "It shows that if you increase your service, you will make it easier for people to use the system."
Heseler said that the increase in trolley ridership was higher last year than the previous two years. His report showed a total of 455,755 people rode the trolley in 2008. That’s an average of 1,248.6 people per day.
Bradenton Beach Mayor Michael Pierce asked Heseler about a request from the city’s parking subcommittee to run the trolley later at night for tourists who dine out or visit nightclubs. Heseler said they have been looking at that request.
"There is, however, a dark cloud this year and that’s the budget," he said. "We’ve been told that there will be more cuts and that might affect our level of service."
Herrington asked Heseler how much it would cost to extend service and he said it costs $75 per hour.
Task force member Donna Hayes, a Manatee County Commissioner, said it might be time to drop the "free" in the free trolleys.
"It’s free and maybe it’s time to look at a fare of a dollar or so per rider," she said, "I always thought they should have to pay."
Heseler said there are more forces at work that might require them to charge for the trolleys.
"Two years from now, Manatee County will feel a tremendous impact when state funding for the trolley goes to half, $257,000, from the current $500,000 per year and the county will have to fund the rest of that," he said, "That same year, the state funding for the Longboat Key trolley of $400,000 goes away, so that’s more than $600,000 the county will have to make up."