An effort by Manatee and Sarasota counties to merge their transit systems under a single, private manager has attracted statewide attention.
"There's great interest at the state and regional level in this proposal to see if these two counties can bring their transit systems together," Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said.
Neighboring Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have been trying to do something similar, he noted.
"This can be a model, perhaps, for that," Hunzeker told Manatee County commissioners this week.
Commissioners representing Manatee and Sarasota have already met once to discuss joint operation of their transit systems, and they're slated for another session Oct. 15.
Already, some routes from Manatee County run into Sarasota County, and vice versa, but the merger op
tion would encourage more seamless travel across county lines, officials believe.
The basic concept is to hire a private company, whose manager would operate both systems, each of which would remain under its original ownership.
The existing systems are called Manatee County Area Transit (MCAT) and Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT).
"Both counties want to expand services without expanding taxpayer money," said Hunzeker. "That's the sense I have."
But the best way to accomplish it may be a sticking point that the two boards need to iron out, Hunzeker said: Request for Proposal first? Is a study necessary? When to hold a public hearing?
"It's time to visit again to see if you're still of the same minds to move forward," Hunzeker told commissioners.
Manatee Commission Chairman Larry Bustle said he would prefer to first seek a formal proposal for a manager, who then would resolve the many knotty problems of fashioning a joint operation.
But Sarasota commissioners might prefer to start some other way, which is one topic they'll be discussing.
"The Sarasota County Commission has been willing to be open and explore this," said Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson. "Public participation and input as well as the cost analysis will be an important part of this process and the decision-making."
A potential merger timeline might be from 10 months to up to two years, she wrote in an email Wednesday.
Already, Sarasota County has put out a six-question survey for Manatee and Sarasota residents seeking their views about a merger.
The survey, offered in both English and Spanish, plus a comment section, will be online for three weeks at the Sarasota County website, www.scgov.net, and on SCAT buses.
To take the survey by phone, call the Sarasota Call Center at 941-861-5000.
"The survey should take about one minute to complete, and will add the voice of our customers to ongoing conversation about a possible merger," SCAT director Glama Carter said.
It's not unusual at all for government entities to hire private corporations to manage transit systems, said Richard Shine, the public transit administrator for the Florida Department of Transportation District One.
And while actual mergers might be less common, neighboring transit systems often will interconnect or work closely with each other, he said.
State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, creator of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, welcomed the regional planning discussion.
"The discussion about streamlining our modes of transportation and recognizing we have to plan regionally is a discussion that has been around and is continuing to grow in volume," he said.
"That was for me the genesis of the regional transportation authority because we're losing effectiveness in service, as well as cost effectiveness, by not having a more cooperative plan between local governments, especially in a particular region.
"Regional planning is something we want to be doing," Galvano said.
The joint commission meeting is slated for 1:30 -- 5 p.m. Oct. 15 at the Bradenton Area Convention Center.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.
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