With City and County of Sarasota commissioners reviving years-old discussions, downtown Sarasota bus station site potentially could go back to city

County staff report talks of likelihood of county having to repay FDOT grant funds if property ceases to serve SCAT passengers

This is a 2014 aerial view of the county’s downtown Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) bus station. Image courtesy Sarasota County

More than seven years ago — in January 2014 — Sarasota County commissioners talked about their desire to relocate the Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) bus station in downtown Sarasota.

During the Jan. 22, 2014 County Commission meeting, then-Commissioner Joe Barbetta — a downtown Sarasota resident — pointed out that the Lemon Avenue site would be a prime parcel for economic redevelopment.

The discussion followed outreach from Ernest Ritz, then-chair of the City of Sarasota’s Downtown Improvement District (DID), to then-County Commission Chair Carolyn Mason.

The DID members had been talking about ways to increase economic vibrancy, as well as the tax base, in the heart of the city, when they put their focus on the SCAT transfer station.

“We start looking around and here sits a piece of property owned by the county, and it is not producing income and has outgrown its use,” Ritz had told his fellow DID board members, as The Sarasota News Leader reported at the time.

Ernest Ritz addresses the city commissioners on March 1. File image

Living across from the station, Ritz pointed out that he had seen it become more crowded with buses. In place of it, he added, he envisioned a four- or five-story structure with retail on the first floor. “It could be anything on the floors above,” he said. “It could be condos, could be rental apartments, could be office space or could be another proposed hotel.”

Right now, the 18,000-square-foot (0.41 acre) parcel is “prime property just sitting there” without bringing in ad valorem tax revenue, Ritz told News Leader. At just under half-an-acre, and zoned Downtown Core, it would be a good size for a project that would not be a “mega development,” Ritz pointed out.

Almost exactly seven years and one month later, the future of the SCAT downtown bus station arose again during a County Commission meeting.

On Feb. 24, Chair Alan Maio talked of a productive discussion that he and County Administrator Jonathan Lewis recently had had with Mayor Hagen Brody and new City Manager Marlon Brown. It lasted almost two hours, Maio noted, and ended with a pledge from both groups to work together on issues.

“I also had an opportunity to meet with the mayor, the vice mayor, [City Commissioner] Jen [Ahearn-Koch] and Commissioner [Kyle Scott] Battie, County Commissioner Christian Ziegler told his colleagues after Maio concluded his remarks. “Great conversations with them,” Ziegler said.

One issue the city leaders want to discuss, Ziegler continued, is the bus transfer station. “It is tough,” Ziegler emphasized of the fact that the facility is “right next to Whole Foods” and so close to City Hall.

“Those big [SCAT] buses going through downtown and trying to turn in there [create problems],” Ziegler said. Not much space is available for them to navigate into and out of the station.

Ziegler suggested the potential of relocating the station. He said he understood that if the county were to take such action, the land would revert to the city.

Maio responded by telling his colleagues that several of them, like him, might have had outreach from business owners in the community “about potential uses for [the SCAT transfer station site].”

When the facility was constructed in 2002, Maio continued, it was a “great, great design.”

Yet, he indicated the county ended up having to purchase bigger buses as a result of the federal funds it receives for public transportation. Maio framed that as county staff having been “told what buses to buy …”

Commission Chair Alan Maio. File image

SCAT staff already was engaged in “a deeper dive” about the future of the county’s bus service, Maio continued. The downtown Sarasota station could be part of that initiative, he indicated.

Nonetheless, Maio said, if the county ended up abandoning the site, “We might have to pay the money back to the [Federal Transit Administration].”

During the 2014 discussion about the downtown station, county staff pointed out that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) gave the county a $2.83-million grant for the construction of the facility, which coast about $3.17 million, including the purchase price of the land from the city.

On Feb. 24, Maio suggested Commissioner Ziegler make a motion directing county staff to research what would happen if the board members agreed to cease use of the station.

Ziegler did so, adding that the resulting report should “provide us with options and also what the impact would be if we relocate [the facility].”

Commissioner Moran seconded the motion.

“I may add some to it, if that’s OK,” County Administrator Lewis told the board members.

“That’s fine,” Maio replied.

The report was completed on April 2, based on a copy the News Leader received through a public records request.

The details in the report

The document resulting from Ziegler’s motion explained that, in February 2002, at the conclusion of a “site analysis for alternative locations within and around downtown Sarasota,” city leaders agreed to sell the property at the intersection of First Street and Lemon Avenue to the county for a new transfer station. Prior to the construction of the new facility, the report added, “[B]uses converged on Lemon Avenue and made stops on the street for passengers to board, disembark, or transfer between routes. Historically,” the report continued, “the heart of downtown … has been a high-volume destination for SCAT customers.”

Then the report pointed out, “Most of the funding for land acquisition, design, and construction of the station” came out of the FDOT grant award. The county paid the city $647,989.50 for the land; $170,000 of that was for “parking mitigation,” the report noted.

The SCAT downtown transfer station also has been a focus of public complaints over the years because homeless persons tend to gather there. File photo

The total amount the county received from FDOT was $2,829,594.49, the report added.

“If the County disposes of an FDOT grant funded project facility during [the project’s] useful life for any purpose except replacement with a like facility for public transportation use,” the report explained, the grant agreements require the County to comply with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) property management standards. “FTA expects most buildings and facilities to have a useful life of 40 years. The County could owe FDOT [its] portion of the present value if the bus station is not replaced with a like facility.”

Further, the report did note that the purchase agreement with the city called for the city to be able to reacquire the property “at a price equivalent to the fair market value, including all improvements, in the event the County decides to sell the property.”

The report went on to discuss the October 2020 County Commission decision to “optimize the SCAT fixed route system, to implement new mobility on demand [MOD] services, and establish mobility hubs.” (On April 6, the commissioners unanimously approved a contract with a New York City firm to provide MOD services for an initial year, with four, one-year renewal options. River North Transit is expected to begin those services in June, SCAT Director Jane Grogg told the News Leader.)

Additionally, the April 2 county board report pointed out, thanks to optimization initiatives, “the number of fixed routes using the [downtown Sarasota] station will be reduced [from 14 to 10],” and new mobility on demand services will connect with fixed routes at the downtown transfer station.

Forty-foot-long SCAT buses have been common in the past at the Lemon Avenue transfer station. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Moreover, the report noted, “The downtown transfer station location has the highest number of daily boardings in the system and is identified by riders as the top destination in the system. This demand matches the system’s construct of using the downtown transfer station as the hub.”
The average number of weekday boardings at the facility is 1,1396, the report added, with the Saturday average at 946, and the Sunday figure at 466.

As SCAT was working on its new service plans, the report continued, participants in a survey “were asked to identify where they thought SCAT services would be most valuable based on a map that was provided in the survey. They were asked to check up to three options.”

The downtown Sarasota facility ended up being the top choice, with 44.3% of respondents citing it, the report said. “By comparison, the next most desired locations were the ‘North Sarasota/SRQ Airport/University area’ with 36.6% of participants.”

Further, the report explained, along with plans to reduce the number of routes using the downtown transfer station, SCAT has eliminated the use of 40-foot buses at the facility.

In researching the expense of a new bus transfer station to replace the one on Lemon Avenue, the report pointed out, staff researched three examples of plans for new facilities in other locations. The costs ranged from about $5.7 million — based on a 2013 project in Naples — to at least $8 million for a facility to serve Bloomington-Normal, Ill., which has yet to be built; to $17,275,000 for a project in Champagne-Urbana, Ill., which included “mixed-use space for retail, residential, and parking accommodations.”

Moving forward

Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo offers comments during the March 1 City Commission meeting. File image

During the April 5 Sarasota City Commission meeting, Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo brought up the bus station, saying, “The county would like to remove [it]. … They’re looking for us to give them some direction.”

Arroyo added, “We’ve been wanting to extend Lemon [Avenue] to the Rosemary District,” for an example of how the relocation of the facility would be beneficial to the city. “We could use that land for many viable things.”

Arroyo suggested the City Commission send a formal letter to county leaders, encouraging them to move the transfer station.

“I completely agree and support it,” Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch responded.

“It’s outgrown the location, really,” Commissioner Liz Alpert added of the facility.

“It’s too tight for the buses,” Mayor Brody said of the site. Further, Brody continued, “The bus stop … creates a lot of problems in the heart of our downtown that are not adequately dealt with and monitored.”

Instead of a motion, the commissioners agreed, by consensus, to send the letter to the county.