With approval of ‘Mobility on Demand’ contractor for Sarasota County Area Transit, new service operations expected in four initial zones starting in early June

New York City firm wins $2.3 million contract with option for four one-year renewals

This is a still from one of the videos featured on the River North Transit website. The company does business as Via. Image from the Via website

Occasionally, Sarasota County commissioners pull an item from a Consent Agenda of routine business matters to ask questions of staff members before voting on it.

Sometimes, they also take an opportunity to point to significant aspects of a particular item.

On April 6, right after the board members unanimously approved that day’s Consent Agenda, Commissioner Christian Ziegler told his colleagues he had been thinking about No. 15 and felt it deserved extra attention. “That’s a big step for us as a county,” he added, in terms of innovation.

Item No. 15 on the April 6 Consent Agenda called for the board’s approval of a contract with a company called River North Transit LLC of New York City “for the provision of mobility on demand services for a one-year period, in a total amount not to exceed $2,294,834.00.”

“This is something that could really turn into a big benefit for our community,” Ziegler pointed out.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader question about the when the new service will begin, Jane Grogg, director of Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT), wrote in an April 7 email, “We are targeting an 8-week timeframe to launch. The precise day hasn’t been picked, but it will be at the beginning of June. Sarasota County Area Transit will also be coinciding the launch of our new fixed route schedule at the same time. We are preparing information for public distribution during this run-up time to the launch.”

The staff memo related to the April 6 agenda item explained that, on Oct. 21, 2020, the commissioners unanimously agreed with a proposal presented by Grogg, who then was SCAT’s interim director, that the county launch a new plan for its public transportation services. SCAT would redesign some of its bus routes, remove some that were seldom used and provide “mobility on demand,” or MOD, as Grogg put it.

As a result of the board action that day, SCAT issued a formal “solicitation for MOD service delivery,” the April 6 staff memo noted.

Nine firms responded, and four were invited to make oral presentations, the memo continued. “The “recommended awardee is River North Transit, LLC,” the memo said.

The contract the board members approved this week includes the option of four one-year extensions. The memo explained that that will allow SCAT to assess how MOD works.

River North Transit will provide the scheduling and dispatching software, a mobile app for customers, a website “and a full call center to process customer trip requests,” the memo added.

It also will be responsible for maintenance and fuel, the contract’s Scope of Services says.

This is information on River North Transit LLC, provided by Dun & Bradstreet. Image from Dun & Bradstreet

Further, the company will provide the vehicles and all personnel needed to serve four initial MOD zones: North Port, Venice-Englewood, Siesta Key, and Lido-Longboat Keys.

“Sarasota County retains the right to expand the boundaries of each zone, add more zones and set the service characteristics,” the memo pointed out. “This is a non-exclusive agreement,” the memo continued; it “is based on a fixed hourly cost per vehicle.”

If SCAT recommends renewing the contract after the first year, the expense will rise to $2,312,075 for years two through five, the memo said.

Funding for the contract was available in SCAT’s budget for the current fiscal year, the memo pointed out.

The Scope of Services also notes that River North Transit’s performance “will be reviewed at a minimum” on a monthly basis, but such assessments can be undertaken “as needed as determined by the County where performance is not meeting service requirements.”

Further, “If Contractor fails to meet the service requirements … or any additional service impacts occur outside of those [outlined in the contract], the County and Contractor, during the monthly meeting, will discuss and agree upon remedies for these failures.”

This graphic shows the Siesta Key MOD zone. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Much of the contract was redacted. The first page referenced Florida Statute 815.045, which deals with trade secrets. That state law says, “Disclosing trade secrets in an agency’s possession would negatively impact the business interests of those providing an agency such trade secrets by damaging them in the marketplace, and those entities and individuals disclosing such trade secrets would hesitate to cooperate with that agency, which would impair the effective and efficient administration of governmental functions. Thus, the public and private harm in disclosing trade secrets significantly outweighs any public benefit derived from disclosure, and the public’s ability to scrutinize and monitor agency action is not diminished by nondisclosure of trade secrets.”

‘Cutting edge’

Customer experience will be a primary focus of the new MOD service, Commissioner Ziegler noted during the board’s April 6 discussion. Still, he added, the county will save money and create efficiencies in its public transportation services.

“We can either scale it up or scale it down as we go forward,” Ziegler said of the MOD approach.

These are the proposed schedules for MOD services in the four zones. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“There’s been an enormous amount of effort and time put into this,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger pointed out, concurring with Ziegler about the need to highlight that agenda item. “This is pretty cutting edge. … This will create a much more efficient system.”
Cutsinger added that it will be interesting to look back in a year, to see how the MOD approach has worked.

Commissioner Michael Moran said that when he talked one-on-one with Grogg of SCAT about the River North contract, he told her, “Five or 10 years from now, [the service] might not even look like this. “

He also advised her, Moran continued, that “she’s going to need to make some mistakes over the next couple of years,” as she and her SCAT colleagues watch how the MOD system works.

Commissioner Nancy Detert then said that when she has mentioned the plans in conversations with constituents, “The public gets very excited …”

“Everybody in the community has seen empty buses, buses with four people, buses with two people,” Detert continued, noting that those buses are large vehicles. The new system, she said, is “really pretty phenomenal.”

This graphic shows the boundaries of the Longboat-Lido Keys MOD zone. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The commissioners emphasized to the consultant who worked with staff on SCAT improvements that they were “looking to improve service,” and not just save money, Detert added.

“It’s still going to be up to our staff to get the word out,” Ziegler stressed.

“We are part of the communications team,” Detert pointed out. After the COVID-19 pandemic has ended, and the board members once again can address civic and other organizations, she indicated, they can tout the MOD service.