No SCAT bus routes can be eliminated before completion of ‘equity analysis,’ interim department director explains

Leaders of Town of Longboat Key plead with County Commission to maintain service on the county portion of the island

Former Mayor Terry Gans of Longboat Key. File photo

As staff of Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) continues to try to create a more efficient system that requires less of a subsidy from the Sarasota County General Fund, the proposed elimination of one route has prompted pleas from the Town of Longboat Key.

Then-Mayor Terry Gans appeared before the County Commission during its March 23 budget workshop to point out, “Route 18 is the only source of public transit in the Sarasota County portion of [Longboat],” which sits partly in Manatee County.

Removing that bus from the SCAT schedule, Gans said, would save the county only $136,606 out of the overall SCAT budget of $29.9 million.

Gans added, “The service industry is very important to the town,” and many of the riders of Route 18 “rely on public transportation for their livelihood.”

With the Town Commission recently having approved a proposed 166-room St. Regis Hotel on the site where The Colony stood for years, he continued, and with the Longboat Key Club planning for 300 more hotel rooms, Route 18 takes on even more significance.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and interim SCAT director Rob Lewis told the county commissioners that the goal is not just to secure reductions in the county’s budget but also to try to provide better service to residents who need public transit. “I think that it’s a very important obligation,” Rob Lewis pointed out.

Even if the commissioners and administrative staff were not seeking every possible way to reduce expenses for the 2019 and future fiscal years, Lewis continued, he would be undertaking a thorough review of SCAT operations.

As for Route 18: Rob Lewis said he and his staff are working with representatives of the Town of Longboat Key, the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and Manatee County staff on alternatives. In fact, he added, County Administrator Lewis had given him approval to test a pilot program this summer if those talks lead to an idea that seems more efficient.

In response, county commissioners talked of the potential for on-demand services, such as one modeled on Uber operations, as an option.

Even two years ago, Commissioner Alan Maio said, he could not have envisioned recommending such a proposal. “But there are jurisdictions that are successfully doing that [and achieving] a very significant reduction in cost.”

Photo courtesy Sarasota County

The subsidy to SCAT from the county’s General Fund — which includes all the property tax revenue the county receives annually — has been growing over the years, Commissioner Michael Moran added. “This transfer [from the General Fund] was in excess of $20 million [for the 2018 fiscal year budget],” Moran emphasized. “This is a lot of money. … Anything that’s creative, entrepreneurial, out of the box [to reduce that transfer],” Moran said, “I’m all ears.”

“I used to talk about Uber as … a joke,” Chair Nancy Detert added. “It’s so much better for the customer,” she continued, to be able to be able to use an on-demand system of transportation.

Regarding Route 18 on Longboat Key, Commissioner Charles Hines suggested that “it would be interesting” to survey the riders to learn where they live and where they work.

Rob Lewis noted that the average number of daily passengers is 62.

Hines continued, “What can the private sector do to help bring employees [to their places of work]? … I hope we’re looking at all options.”

Lewis responded that he had asked staff “to drill down” to determine where riders board the bus and where they get off. “We’ve now started to get more specific details. … That will help us define a model that perhaps is one we’ve never used before.”

Lewis also explained that neither Route 18 nor any other SCAT routes proposed for elimination could be removed from the schedule before the middle or latter part of the 2019 fiscal year — most likely the summer of 2019. That is because of the necessity of complying with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) requirements.

“We cannot eliminate a route until we’ve gone through the FTA equity analysis,” he added.

During the Jan. 31 budget workshop, the County Commission considered these proposed cuts for SCAT. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Other proposed changes are as follows:

  • Implementing the Sunday schedule on Saturdays.
  • Eliminating Route 13, which serves Venice and south Venice.
  • Eliminating Route 100, which is the express service from the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and downtown Sarasota to North Port.
  • Eliminating one heavy-equipment technician and one bus attendant for every six buses taken out of service.
  • Eliminating one operations supervisor for every 20 full-time drivers eliminated.

A slide Rob Lewis showed the board indicated that the earliest the commission would be asked to approve a contract for the necessary consulting work for the equity analysis would be May 23. The project would continue through the summer, he said, with its completion and submission of the results to the FTA anticipated to take place in December.

Then, Lewis continued, staff would expect the FTA to respond no later than March 2019. After county staff members hear from the agency, he indicated, they would wait to adjust or eliminate routes after tourist season, probably in August or September 2019.

Positive start to triennial review

Rob Lewis addresses the County Commission on Jan. 31. File photo

Lewis did have positive news to report to the board as part of his March 23 presentation. “We just finished the first site visit of the triennial review,” which is a federal requirement for transit services, he said. That review, he explained, is a comprehensive audit.

“We had an extremely successful visit” with representatives from the federal government, he continued. “I sat through most of it.”
The woman who led the process, he noted, said that of the 20 areas reviewed, SCAT needs to address just five, and she considered those to be mostly of a technical nature. The consensus after the review, Lewis added, is that SCAT “is a very well-run organization.”

“I think you’ve done a yeoman’s job, jumping in on a category that’s not your category,” Chair Detert told Lewis, referring to his serving as interim SCAT director. Lewis also is the county’s director of community and intergovernmental relations, which includes working for county interests at the legislative level.

“Sometimes it’s good to have fresh, common sense eyes on a problem,” Detert added.

It would be preferable for private enterprise to pay employees better, she continued, so workers could afford vehicles “and take the burden off of us to get ’em to their job.”