County to privatize its paratransit bus system

Two SCAT buses stopped at Southgate March 2013
A Sarasota County Area Transit paratransit bus (right) is stopped at Southgate Mall along with a regular bus. File photo

With a per-trip expense more than $10 higher than that of 11 private peer services, the board votes unanimously on the change

By Rachel Brown Hackney

With Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) seeing a higher cost per trip — $38 — for its paratransit service than 11 peer bus systems, the County Commission this week voted unanimously to proceed with seeking bids for privatizing the service.

The average cost for systems among the peer communities — all of which are private, according to county staff — is $27.25, Sarasota County staff reported to the commissioners during their Aug. 20 budget workshop. Federal stipulations related to the service and union contracts for personnel contribute to the higher local cost, Cindy Zambella, SCAT’s finance manager, explained to the commissioners.

The paratransit service, which is provided by buses marked as “SCAT Plus,” is for individuals with disabilities who are unable to use regular SCAT equipment.

The goal is to get a private firm in place by March, with a contract expected to come before the board for its approval in February 2015, Robert Lewis, interim SCAT director, told the board.

Commissioner Carolyn Mason requested that staff prepare a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) explanation for paratransit customers, noting that it “would help ease a lot of the anxiety.”

“I feel very strongly that customers need to have their fears allayed,” Lewis agreed, adding that he and his staff will work with the county Communications Department to prepare the FAQ.

The plan calls for the county to continue to own the vehicles, Lewis pointed out; the firm chosen to handle the service would lease the buses. Maintenance also would be outsourced, he said.

Under the current situation, Lewis explained that the county contracts with two firms to provide 50 percent of its paratransit trips, while it handles the remainder in-house. The average cost of the private vendors’ trips is $33, he noted; for the county, it is $45.

“Financially, it goes to demonstrate that it makes good sense to outsource our services,” Lewis added.

“I’m trying to get my head around why ours is so much more expensive,” Chairman Charles Hines said. Regarding the peer system comparison, he asked, “Is it really apples to apples?”

Interim Transportation Planning Director Jonathan Paul told Hines, “It is an apples-to-apples comparison.”

Paratransit bus service comparisons for BCC Aug. 20 2014
A chart compares the costs of 11 peer paratransit bus services in Florida. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Zambella replied that, by law, the county has to provide paratransit service within a radius of three-quarters of a mile of a regular fixed route. “We have a very large fixed route,” she continued. “We are providing a lot of trips in Sarasota County.”

Further, she said, referring to the in-house portion of the service, “We have a union; we pay union wages. We have a very robust and very generous benefits package,” including payments into the Florida Retirement System.

Private vendors typically do not provide the same level of wages and benefits, she added.

Another factor that drives up the local expense, Zambella said, is that the average number of passenger trips per hour is 1.79, compared to 2.4 for the peer systems. “We are not providing enough trips per hour to spread those … costs to get it down below $38 a trip.”

Zambella pointed out that even with privatizing the service, the county would “demand the same type of service level” it provides now.

Commissioner Joe Barbetta made the motion to proceed with the staff recommendation. Mason seconded it.

In a related matter, the board also voted unanimously to authorize staff to develop a scope of service for a comprehensive operations analysis of SCAT’s fixed-route service.

That will enable staff and the board to get a good understanding of the bus system’s strengths and weaknesses, Lewis explained.

The potential relocation of the downtown Sarasota transfer station from the intersection of Lemon Avenue and First Street to Ringling Boulevard would be among the facets of that analysis, Zambella pointed out. The commissioners have been discussing that option over the past several months.

Funding for the analysis is available in SCAT’s budget, she added.

“We are not asking the board today to make a decision about many things,” Lewis pointed out, including whether the entire SCAT system should be privatized. “I just want to be real clear about that.”

“I thank you for those comments, Rob,” Mason said, “because it could get out in front of us that we are doing the total opposite … I’m not all there with this whole issue of privatizing, but I can support this recommendation to take a look-see.”

Mason added, “We can’t make an informed decision if we don’t have this information.”

Mason then made the motion to approve the analysis.