Sarasota County Commission awards contract for comprehensive operations analysis of its bus system

A consulting firm is expected to provide its findings in 10 to 12 months, including recommendations on improving efficiencies

A Sarasota County Area Transit bus travels a city of Sarasota route. Photo courtesy Sarasota County
A Sarasota County Area Transit bus travels a city of Sarasota route. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Almost 14 months after the Sarasota County Commission authorized a comprehensive operations analysis of its transit system, the board this week awarded a contract to a consulting firm that will handle the work.

The item won unanimous approval as part of the board’s Consent Agenda during its Oct. 13 meeting in Venice.

The agreement calls for the county to pay Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. no more than $219,287.32 for the study. The firm has an office in Sarasota. According to Rocky Burke, Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) director, the analysis is expected to take 10 to 12 months.

When asked why it took more than a year to approve a contract for the work, Jason Bartolone, a county spokesman, told The Sarasota News Leader this week that SCAT staff initially wanted to select a firm from a list of approved county vendors maintained as the Library of Services to help prepare the scope of work for the project. However, Bartolone added, it ultimately became clear that the most cost-efficient option would be to seek Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for the analysis. That “took longer than they anticipated,” he said of SCAT staff members.

A memo Burke provided to the County Commission in advance of the meeting this week notes that on Aug. 20, 2014, the board directed County Administrator Tom Harmer “to initiate a scope of services for a Comprehensive Operations Analysis (COA).” The board discussed the issue in July 2014 during the presentation of an organizational review of SCAT, the memo adds. While the review demonstrated that SCAT’s fixed-route operations compared well with those of its peers, the memo says, “the [County Commission] identified several areas of focus” for the system: route efficiencies, the Downtown Sarasota Transfer Station, South County routes, and bus stop spacing and shelter priorities.

Rocky A. Burke is the SCAT director. News Leader photo
Rocky A. Burke is the SCAT director. News Leader photo

On Feb. 18 of this year, the commission approved a contract with Kimley Horn Inc. for data collection and for an “Automatic Passenger Counter Validation Project” in the amount of $199,986.92. (All SCAT buses are equipped with counters, so the firm was to assess the functioning of that equipment.) Kimley Horn, which also has an office in Sarasota, was asked to conduct onboard “origin-destination ridership surveys for all of SCAT’s 24 fixed bus routes to collect passenger travel patterns, ridership and demographic information,” according to a staff memo. The goal was to interview 5 to 10 percent of the average weekday riders.

“This data will be collected through passenger interviews using electronic tablet devices,” the memo adds. “The process will be consistent with the state-of-the-practice techniques recommended by the Federal Transit Administration.”

During a Feb. 20 budget workshop this year, Burke explained that obtaining comments from bus passengers is “a little bit of a twist on this [undertaking of a comprehensive analysis].”

When Commissioner Paul Caragiulo — who was elected to the board in 2014 — asked when the last COA was completed, Burke replied that it was in 2010. Typically, Burke pointed out, transit agencies seek a COA every four to five years.

When Caragiulo then asked whether other transit agencies always hire consultants to handle the work, Burke replied, “That’s correct, sir.”

The contractor will collect the data, review it and then provide SCAT with recommendations, Burke added — for example, “where deficiencies are and where efficiencies are,” along with suggestions for restructuring routes.

The memo Burke provided to the board before its Oct. 13 meeting says the analysis will include an examination of ridership according to stops and times of day.

During the February workshop, Harmer also pointed out to the commissioners that Burke, who was hired about two months earlier, had been through the COA process in a previous position as a transit system manager. That experience enabled Burke to assist other county staff members in tweaking the scope of work for the COA, Harmer added, “and really helped us with the data collection piece that was needed no matter what.”

Prior to his hiring in Sarasota County, Burke was general manager of Lextran in Lexington, KY, where he oversaw a program that included 75 fixed bus routes and 49 contracted para-transit buses, more than 200 employees and an operating budget of $21 million, according to the Mass Transit magazine website.

The previous SCAT director, Glama Carter, was terminated in July 2014.