Interim SCAT director says draft of the solicitation still on track to be completed by end of month
Over the past several years, the Sarasota County Commission has debated whether it should pursue privatization of its bus system. On July 11, in a unanimous vote, the board authorized Rob Lewis, the county’s governmental relations director and interim director of Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT), to proceed with development of a Request for Proposals (RFP) on potential new management of the system.
At that time, Lewis said he believed the draft of the RFP could be completed by the end of August. In an Aug. 13 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Lewis confirmed that that remains the plan. He will appear again before the board during its final budget workshop — set for Aug. 22 in downtown Sarasota — with an update on the process, he added. If the commissioners want to offer any further direction at that time, he said, “I will certainly take that.”
On July 11, Commissioner Michael Moran asked whether Lewis felt it would be possible for the commissioners to have responses to an RFP in time for start of their deliberations on the 2020 fiscal year budget. Lewis replied that he believed staff could operate within that timeline.
During his remarks to the board members that day, Lewis reminded them that in August 2017, they authorized County Administration to prepare a solicitation for alternative methods for providing public transit in the county. Then, in January, they approved a Request for Information (RFI), which was issued on Jan. 19, Lewis noted. That allowed the SCAT staff to obtain responses from companies with details about performance issues and technical considerations, for example, he added.
That RFI formally was titled Feasibility of Outsourcing Transit Services Planning, Operations, Maintenance and Management. It explained that SCAT employs 235 people and operates 10 neighborhood buses, 10 hybrid buses, 40 diesel buses, three trolleys and 42 para-transit diesel buses. The RFI pointed out that the trolleys and para-transit equipment is managed under contracts with outside firms.
Three companies responded to the RFI, Lewis noted on July 11. As detailed in the packets provided to the commissioners in advance of that meeting, the companies were Keolis Transit America, based in Los Angeles; RATP Dev USA, a Fort Worth, Texas, company that is a subsidiary of RATP Group, which opened the first Paris Metro line; and Transdev, based in Lombard, Ill., which has sent inquiries in the past to county administration, seeking to assist with a transition to private management of SCAT.
Since they received that material, Lewis continued, SCAT’s staff members have “done significant outreach,” including sharing the information with Manatee County’s administration; the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO); the Town of Longboat Key; the Cities of Sarasota, Venice and North Port; Visit Sarasota County; and the Sarasota, Venice and Longboat Key chambers of commerce. SCAT was working to schedule a meeting with the chamber in North Port, as well, he added.
Turning to the RFI results, Lewis pointed out that the public/private partnership model was the most common recommendation among them. If the county moved to that type of model, he said, a private contractor would assume control of the operation and maintenance of SCAT, provide the necessary technical assistance, and handle labor negotiations and the required routine reporting to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
Each of the companies that responded to the RFI indicated that it would take 60 to 90 days for a firm to provide responses to an RFP, Lewis said.
Additionally, Lewis told the board, the responses were consistent in noting that any contract with a private firm should be for a minimum of five years, with an option of renewal for another five years. Under such a contract, he added, the RFI responses indicated that transit management “would still need to be a county function.”
Two of the companies that responded to the RFI suggested further that the transition to a private firm’s management be conducted in two phases: a start-up period should last for several months, and then the full transition to private management should occur.
Replying to a question from Commissioner Alan Maio, Lewis said that he had talked with the Manatee County transit manager as recently as the previous afternoon “about alternate ways to deliver the services that we share, and we talked about the RFI process and what we learned.”
“You’ve been just above and beyond the call of duty on this,” Commissioner Moran told Lewis. “I know it’s a super complex issue.”
Then Moran asked whether Lewis felt staff could have responses to the RFP before the board members hold their traditional December retreat. (During that event, the commissioners typically provide some direction to staff in regard to planning for the next fiscal year’s budget.)
“Yes, commissioner,” Lewis told Moran.
Then Moran said he felt the RFP needed to ask for responses that would entail Sarasota County working with Manatee County and Sarasota County working alone with a private firm. “If something goes sideways with [the option of collaboration with Manatee County], for whatever variety of reasons,” Moran added, “I don’t want it to slow things down …”
Lewis replied that SCAT staff would work on appropriate language “that would provide the board with the greatest amount of latitude regarding any other participants.” He also noted that he felt, with Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis involved in the process, “we would find out very quickly what Manatee wants to do.”
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo asked whether Rob Lewis felt the county would receive more than three responses to the RFP.
“I would certainly expect that we would see more responses than the three,” Lewis told Caragiulo. “It’s a $29-million business,” Lewis added of SCAT’s operations. “I would certainly expect that we would see more responses …”
“Is it going to be possible to look at an expansion of services?” Caragiulo asked.
That would be part of the RFP, Lewis indicated.
Moran then voiced the desire to ensure that the RFP address how privatization would affect county employees. “I want hypersensitivity to this … how [a company is] going to deal potentially with the human capital that we have. … [Bid respondents] need to be as detailed and transparent as possible …”
“You touch on a very, very important aspect of this,” Lewis replied. “What really makes transit work in this county isn’t the vehicles … It’s the people planning and operating and maintaining the vehicles.”
Lewis concurred with Moran that the goal with the RFP would be for any respondent “be very transparent” about the company’s plans regarding SCAT employees. In fact, Lewis pointed out, federal law protects those employees “against any worsening of employment or conditions.”
“I think you, Mr. Lewis, are a very good listener, and I think you read the temperature of the board very well,” Chair Nancy Detert told him.
In past discussions about the potential privatization of SCAT, she continued, commissioners had been consistent in offering their views. “What I usually say is I find it a stretch to think that private industry is going to be able to provide the same level of services that we do at the same price and serve the same amount of people with no disruption.”
In one-on-one discussions she has had with them, Detert added, representatives of transit companies have indicated “they would have to lay off people,” because their goal is to make a profit.
Constructing an RFP with options for collaboration with Manatee County and without, Detert said, “gets very complex. But I will happily support an RFP just to see what [companies] say.”
Still, she pointed out, she was skeptical that any private firm could make a profit operating SCAT without changes that would be unpopular with county residents.
When she asked for a motion, Caragiulo made it, directing staff to work on the draft RFP for a public-private partnership in which the private contractor would assume control of the entire transit operation and maintenance; provide transportation technologies and bus stop maintenance; and handle labor negotiations, payroll, federal and state grant requests, FTA reports, customer service, planning, scheduling, dispatching and reporting of key performance indicators. The county would set policy in regard to fares, major service design changes and service levels.
He added that he first would like for staff to contact Manatee County transit officials to determine whether they had an interest in participating in the process. “I think it’s great,” Caragiulo said, if the two local governments can work in tandem on this. “I think it would be great to have a bunch more riders on the system,” he told his colleagues, “and it cost the same money.”
Commissioner Maio seconded the motion. “In this instance,” he said, “I’m like Commissioner Moran: Nothing gets done quick enough for me.”
Maio added that he would “love to see” the inclusion of a private operation of SCAT in the county’s 2020 budget.
The motion passed 5-0.