County Commission learns Illinois company has renewed effort to create public-private partnership to operate Sarasota and Manatee bus systems

County administrator cautions that staff will have to pursue a competitive bid process, regardless of details of the promised proposal

The Transdev website features one of the company’s automated transit vehicles. Image from

In 2013, the Sarasota and Manatee county commissions discussed the potential of allowing a private firm to take over the management of their two transit systems. Ultimately, while the Manatee board was ready to move ahead, the Sarasota County Commission chose to wait.

The opportunity to explore a regional transportation system uniting Manatee County Area Transit (MCAT) and Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) has arisen again, Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer announced this week. And while Commissioner Michael Moran was ready to forge ahead, Harmer and Commission Vice Chair Nancy Detert — a longtime state legislator before her 2016 election to the board — pointed out that the process must comply not only with the county’s procurement regulations but also with state law.

Moran concerns about SCAT’s operating costs when the board held its latest budget workshop, on May 26.

“It does have to be open, transparent and open to everyone,” Detert explained on June 6, referring to any initiative to enter into a public-private partnership for a regional bus service.

The May 31 letter from Transdev included this information. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During his report to the board during its June 6 meeting, Harmer pointed to a May 31 letter he and the commissioners had received from a firm called Transdev, headquartered in Lombard, Ill.

Transdev also approached the Sarasota and Manatee boards in 2014 about taking over their transit services. Then, it guaranteed savings of at least $2.5 million a year, as the latest letter notes.

The company’s executive vice president, Richard M. Alexander, requested an opportunity to present a new proposal to the board for a “regional public private operating partnership” involving SCAT and MCAT. Since 2014, Alexander continued, “advances in automated vehicles and smart technology present a greater range of opportunities [for Sarasota and Manatee counties] to provide improved transit services for less money than fixed route options.”

Richard Alexander. Image from LinkedIn

Alexander explained that savings “would accrue through elimination of duplication of effort between the two operating systems as well as realization of economies of scale through a public-private partnership. These savings and efficiencies could be achieved while retaining current rank-and-file employees and providing competitive employee compensation and fringe benefits.”

Moreover, Alexander pointed out, “Transdev is a market leader in developing new transit data and technology options.”

The letter notes that after Transdev proposed taking over MCAT and SCAT in November 2014, the Manatee board voted unanimously to support pursuit of the public-private partnership. However, “Sarasota County declined to do so based upon its decision to privatize its paratransit service and complete a Comprehensive Operational Analysis (COA) of its system.”

(The COA report was presented to the Sarasota board in July 2016.)

The new initiative

On June 6, Harmer told the commissioners he had talked with Alexander the previous day. “They have not finalized their proposal,” he added of Transdev representatives. He was not certain how soon it will be ready, Harmer added, other than “the near future.”

Harmer also spoke the previous day with his Manatee counterpart, Ed Hunzeker, Harmer said. They agreed that their staffs would collaborate on review of the Transdev proposal after they receive it.

Then Harmer pointed out that Sarasota County’s first step would be to consult with its Procurement Official, because the county would have to advertise for other proposals, based on the provisions of county law and the Florida Statutes.

After the staff review of the Transdev proposal has been completed, Harmer said, he would provide an update to the commission.

“How long of a time frame are you talking about?” Moran asked. “At what point will we have something formal [to consider]?”

“It’s had to answer,” Harmer replied.

County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

Given the fact that the board will begin its traditional month-long summer recess in the latter part of July, Harmer indicated the discussion most likely would occur in the latter part of the summer.

When Moran — who also was elected in 2016 — asked for clarification that no presentation could be made to the board prior to the staff review, Harmer confirmed that.

“I completely understand an incredibly competitive process,” Moran responded. However, “at this point,” he said of Transdev representatives, “they’re just trying to throw an idea out.”

“They are a vendor,” Harmer explained. “We just have to be careful. They are a vendor soliciting county business.”

Then Commissioner Charles Hines provided a brief history of what transpired in the past, in regard to the discussions with Manatee County. SCAT is “at least twice the size” of MCAT, he noted, which was one reason he and the other Sarasota County commissioners at that time chose to proceed cautiously. Another factor, he noted, was that the county still was in the midst of the economic downturn.

“We did a lot of public outreach,” Hines continued. The commission finally took “a baby step,” he said, by privatizing the paratransit service in 2014. (Called SCAT Plus, it serves people with disabilities.) The board wanted to see how that change would affect service and costs, he added. “I think we’ve had nothing but positive … feedback from users. We’ve saved money. So I think the timing of this, knowing that history, is about right.”

The leadership of the state is encouraging public-private partnerships to create efficiencies, Moran responded. “I’m suggesting we need to get hurdles out of the way … I just don’t want us to get in our own way on this.”

Referencing Harmer’s earlier explanation about the procurement process, Detert told Moran, “We don’t want to be accused of a back-door deal with a private provider …”

Detert also voiced concern about the fact that, based on her discussion the previous day with county staff, Transdev needs to focus on a regional transit system if it is to make the service financially feasible. “Then you’re handcuffed to other counties,” Detert pointed out. “It’s complicated.”

Detert also reminded Moran that Transdev has provided nothing more than general information in its letter. “I don’t think we’re overly slow, but we need to be overly cautious.”