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Airport shuttle clears another hurdle

Written by on Thursday, October 26, 2023

But how practical is Sarasota’s bus service for local commuters?

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Oct. 25, 2023

Host: On Tuesday, the Sarasota County Commissioners took another step towards starting trolley service from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport to downtown. But a local transit advocate questions the rationale underlying the airport service, and argues the overall bus system we locals depend on is impractical and service-unfriendly. Our news team has the details.

Johannes Werner: Yesterday, the Sarasota County commissioners approved, without discussion, a $2 fare for a new airport-to-downtown bus service. That one-way fare is 50 cents higher than the regular fare.

An introductory fare of $1.50 per one-way ride will phase out in March.

The commission unanimously approved the non-stop airport shuttle in May. An 18-month study about mobility services had recommended the airport service. Thirty-nine percent of visitors to Sarasota stay in downtown, Sarasota County transportation services director Jane Grogg told commissioners in April.

Breeze, the recently renamed Sarasota County transit service, is now in the process of acquiring two used trollies, with a launch planned for late January, according to the Sarasota Transit Department.

The new service has met the skepticism of Richard Thomas, co-founder of the Sarasota-Manatee Transit Group. Because it has no stops along the way, it’s of no use for local commuters, and it does not add functionality to the fixed-route system. The local transit advocate believes that for local commuters, the overall bus system still is “messed up”. Years ago, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees transportation planning in the region, recommended that local transit authorities should end their central transfer station route systems and make their fixed-route bus systems more efficient and user friendly. But nothing substantial happened, according to Thomas.

Future airport trolley Sarasota plans to buy

Sarasota airport trolley map

Richard Thomas: The MPO adopted a plan 20 years ago, which said to totally reorganize the bus routes. SCAT didn’t do it.

JW: Asked about the MPO recommendations and the functionality of its overall system, the Transportation Department told us that Sarasota County is now “operating a hybrid transit model that combines fixed routes with mobility-on-demand zones. That model was recommended in an Optimization Study that Sarasota County completed in 2020.”

Meanwhile, the City of Sarasota has taken an initiative on their own and created a free shuttle service between downtown and Lido Beach. This new service, called the Bay Runner, follows the MPO recommendations and does make sense for local bus users, Thomas suggests.

RT: And finally, the city of Sarasota took it into their own hands and put in part of what that plan recommended, which was the East-West route along Main Street out to the Lido Key. And that’s really successful. That one’s free. That’s a trolley, and it’s really popular.

While introducing fares for the airport shuttle, the resolution approved by the county commissioners yesterday leaves the old fare structure in place, which included a 20% one-way fare hike that was implemented in November. With that, Sarasota County goes counter a nationwide trend of trying to convince commuters to drop their cars and hop on buses and trains. Thomas argues that, because farebox revenues make up just a fraction of transit funding for the Sarasota bus system, fares could actually be eliminated altogether, to attract more users.

RT: They only get about one-fifth of the revenue for the operation. It’s only covered by fares 20%. That’s what they shoot for. And the last time I looked, SCAT was like 8%. So why not just eliminate them and you save a lot of money, without having to collect fares, count change, and all that rigmarole?

JW: In neighboring Manatee County, bus users can already hop on without worrying about change. Manatee County introduced a fare-free pilot program this year for its fixed-route MCAT system. County commissioners will consider whether to continue the fare-free program early next year. Miami-Dade is doing the same for buses and Metrorail beginning in November.

The general idea is to reduce road gridlock and shrink the overall cost associated with road traffic, the dependency on the automobile, and employer headaches to find employees able to afford living within a reasonable travel distance from their jobs.

Are fare reductions or free fares in the books for Sarasota County?

Here is what the county told us: “The Transit Department is monitoring the impacts of fare-free systems and continually studies best practices in the industry.”

This has been Johannes Werner for WSLR News.

 

WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.