Sarasota County to seek information from firms involved in mass transit in effort to reduce expenses

Process to have no bearing on SCAT’s proposals for reducing expenses, with Jan. 31 budget workshop set

County commissioners have complained that some Sarasota County Area Transit routes have too few riders. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

With their first budget workshop of the year looming on Jan. 31, the Sarasota County commissioners this week unanimously approved a staff proposal to issue a Request for Information (RFI) designed to help them figure out how best to achieve future savings with the operations of the county’s bus service.

In response to board members’ questions, Rob Lewis, interim director of Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) — as well as the director of community and intergovernmental relations — offered reassurances that the RFI would not have any effect on budget-saving measures that would be presented for SCAT when the Jan. 31 discussions are held.

“It’s imperative for us, as public servants, to be looking for the most efficient ways to deliver those transit services,” including the consideration of alternatives to current practices, Lewis told the commissioners on Jan. 16.

“The world of moving folks from one part of the community to another has changed, like any other technology,” Lewis added. “There’s a lot of ways to deliver [transportation services]. It’s our responsibility to be looking at those and presenting those as options through the [county] administrator.”

(Former SCAT Director Rocky Burke resigned voluntarily on Oct. 4, 2017, county Media Relations Director Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader when asked about Lewis’ interim position. Burke began working for the county in late December 2014 after a 15-year-long mass transit career in Kentucky.)

Image courtesy Sarasota County

The RFI, Lewis explained, would allow staff to collect data and review information from a wide variety of companies whose expertise is in mass transit. The results of the process would enable county staff to determine how best to develop the scope of services the commission wanted, if the commission chose to issue a Request for Proposals subsequent to the RFI, he said.

Staff was hopeful that it would have written responses within 30 calendar days of issuing the RFI, Lewis said. The county’s Procurement Department was ready to launch the initiative “almost immediately,” he added. Based on the responses, Lewis noted in a PowerPoint presentation, recommendations would be made to county administrative personnel.

However, in response to a question from Commissioner Michael Moran, Lewis also pointed out that the RFI “does not set in motion any request or invitation for proposals. … [It] allows us to understand more of what we don’t know.”

On Aug. 21, 2017, during the board’s final workshop before holding two public hearings on its 2018 fiscal year budget, Moran pressed then-County Administrator Tom Harmer about the aftermath of the county’s receipt of a May 31 letter from a firm interested in pursuing a regional transportation system. As he had in early June, Harmer pointed out that local governments have to be careful about ensuring that any solicitation process be as open and transparent as possible. They have to follow state guidelines in seeking any type of service, he stressed in August 2017.

The May 31 letter came from Transdev, which is headquartered in Lombard, Ill. The company’s executive vice president, Richard M. Alexander, had requested an opportunity to present a new proposal to the Sarasota County Commission for a “regional public private operating partnership” involving SCAT and MCAT.

Since 2014, Alexander pointed out, “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.”

As a result of the Aug. 21, 2017 discussion, Lewis noted on Jan. 16, the board directed the county administrator to prepare a type of solicitation focused on alternative methods of public transportation. The vote was 3-2, with now-Chair Nancy Detert and Commissioner Alan Maio in the minority.

On Jan. 16, Detert noted that she — along with other commissioners — had met one-on-one with representatives of firms “selling services.” She added, “They are trying to do it regionally, because their business model works best that way, because they can … cross [county] lines and it’s easier to make a profit.”

Commissioner Mike Moran. File photo

“That’s not our goal. Our goal is to offer good service or better service at the price that we offer now,” she continued. “We have enough trouble agreeing with our cities without branching out to try to get along with three other counties.”

If the majority of the board was interested in implementing a regional mass transit system, she pointed out, many questions would have to be answered first, including whether an outside firm would take over supervision of county employees and whether it would use county-owned equipment.

Lewis said that on Jan. 12, he spoke with Manatee County Area Transit staff, which had received the same type of correspondence Sarasota County had in regard to a private firm managing its transit system.

“The RFI does not preclude regionalization,” he told Detert, but it would provide staff with the best information about how to pursue a regional system, if that was the direction the commission chose to take.

He stressed more than once during his Jan. 16 remarks that the board was not being asked to make a decision that day on how to proceed in the future with SCAT operations.