Savings of about $140,000 a year expected as Sarasota County plans to establish in-house operation to manage traffic in real time

Withdrawal from regional center based in Bradenton to take effect in fall of 2020

Staff at the Regional Traffic Management Center in Bradenton monitors traffic in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Image from the facility’s 2017 annual report, via Manatee County Government

In May, the Sarasota County commissioners took a tentative step toward severing the county’s years-long relationship with other local governments in an operation called the Regional Traffic Management Center (RTMC), which is located in Bradenton.

The chief critic of the RTMC — Commissioner Michael Moran — was absent from that May 21 discussion.

On Sept. 10, however, he readily made a motion that will accomplish what his colleagues began in the spring.

Based on staff’s projections, that action could save the county close to $140,000 a year.

As noted in an FDOT “white paper” provided to the commissioners in advance of the meeting, the agreement underlying the RTMCs establishment allows for “signal timing adjustments to reduce impacts of non-recurring congestion issues including crashes, special events, and weather.”

On a unanimous vote, the commissioners authorized staff to take the necessary steps to pull out of the RTMC, which would not occur until Sept. 30, 2020. That is because the county must provide a one-year notice of its withdrawal plans, Assistant County Engineer Larry Mau explained.

Instead of an annual expense of $1,027,000 for collaboration in the regional system designed to alleviate traffic congestion, the county would incur costs of about $887,000 a year, if staff can work out the details of the plan the commissioners approved. If not, then the board members gave staff the authority to pursue an alternative plan that would be more expensive in the long term.

“I’m just incredibly excited about this,” Moran said. “Just the way technology is [advancing] so quickly,” he continued, “I think having some independence on this … is just essential.”

A chart provides details about expected Sarasota County savings as a result of withdrawing from the RTMC. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As part of the Sept. 10 motion, the commission also directed staff to negotiate an agreement with the remaining RTMC members to purchase data maintained by the RTMC that relates to county traffic signals. If staff can accomplish that, the total expense of the establishment of a new county traffic management operation in the first year would be $66,000, Assistant County Engineer Mau said.

The county also would need an extra full-time employee, he noted — a junior engineer.

If that scenario — dubbed Option A — proves workable, he said, the county would be able to save $74,000 in the first year after leaving the RTMC.

The county would operate its traffic systems through a link to the RTMC, according to a staff memo provided to the commissioners in advance of the Sept. 10 meeting.

Staff members then would “beef up our current [Advanced Traffic Management System] operation at the BOB building,” Mau explained on Sept. 10.

If the county has to end up establishing a standalone operation — without the RTMC link — Mau pointed out that that would cost $244,000 for the first year, leading to a loss of $84,000 in. However, the subsequent annual operating expense would be $867,000, according to a slide he showed the board.

Staff recommended Option A, Mau said.

The staff memo explained that it would take the county more than eight years to cover the extra start-up expenses of Option B.

During their May 21 discussion of the RTMC, commissioners were cautious about causing any friction with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), which has been a partner in the regional center, along with the Florida Highway Patrol, the City of Sarasota, Manatee County and the City of Bradenton.

This graphic from the 2018 annual report for the Regional Traffic Management Center offers this data. Image from the facility’s 2018 annual report, via Manatee County Government

The original county agreement regarding the RTMC dates to May 2005, according to a copy of a document provided to the commissioners in their back-up agenda material for the Sept. 10 meeting.

On Sept. 10, Keith Slater, director of transportation operations for FDOT’s District One office — in Bartow — reassured the commissioners that the department would not perceive the withdrawal from the RTMC in a negative fashion.

“We enjoy a great relationship with FDOT,” Commissioner Alan Maio told Slater. “I am delighted with how you all responded back to our staff.”

Mau further noted that, the previous week, FDOT notified county staff that it planned to take over the RTMC operations for state and regional traffic signals. “This ties basically with our program, our recommendation,” Mau added.

“This layout of the RTMC works in other areas,” Slater said. Some large consortiums do well, he added, while smaller ones do not. FDOT staff members “need to push the RTMC to where it works as it has in other areas,” Slater said.

During the discussion, Slater alluded to the “white paper” that FDOT District One Secretary L.K. Nandam had his staff email to County Engineer Spencer Anderson on Sept. 6.

It provides the details of FDOT’s plans, which Slater summarized to the commission on Sept. 10

RTMC and county traffic functions

Mau reminded the commissioners on Sept. 10 that the RTMC works with county staff at the BOB Building — in the eastern part of the county, off Fruitville Road.

FDOT works through the RTMC to manage traffic on Interstate 75, he added.

A graphic explains facets of the county’s Advanced Traffic Management System. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The RTMC makes us of Advanced Traffic Management System (ATMS) equipment to function, Mau added. The first five phases of the ATMS system have been completed in the county, he continued, with the county having paid $4,290,000 and FDOT covering $18,120,000 of the expense. Phase 6, which is awaiting final FDOT approval, he noted, would cost the county another $600,000, while the state would pay $4.2 million for it.

Thus, Mau said, the total capital investment on the county’s part for the ATMS would be $4,890,000, while the state would have spent $22,320,000.

With another slide, Mau explained that the county pays $345,000 a year for staff — plus technical support — to handle the ATMS. Another $238,000 goes toward overhead and licensing fees, with $152,000 budgeted for hardware, software and fiber optic cable. That totals $735,000, he said.

Each year, the county also budgets $292,000 for its payment to the RTMC, Mau continued. However, “We’ve been below that the last two years,” he pointed out.

Nonetheless, according to the slide Mau showed the board, in the future, the annual RTMC payment could reach the $600,000 level, if the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization eliminated its assistance to the county in covering that expense.