LAKEWOOD RANCH — As Ruth Russo steps off the Sarasota County Area Transit bus at Cattlemen Road and University Parkway, she and fellow rider Roberto Vasquez take their first steps toward their work destinations in Lakewood Ranch.
Rain or shine, the two make the more than one-mile trek every workday — Russo to FCCI and Vasquez to a restaurant on Lakewood Ranch Main Street.
“I pay attention to the weather reports,” Russo says, noting in the summer she keeps an umbrella on hand to combat both the sun and rain. “(Without the bus), you’d have to rely on other people, but that’s not really reliable. You try to carpool, but it’s hard (if people aren’t traveling to the same place or something comes up).”
Fortunately, Russo’s and Vasquez’s transportation dilemma may get easier.
The Florida Department of Transportation announced recently it would designate more than $1 million in fiscal year 2015 to help Manatee County start bus service to the Lakewood Ranch and University Park areas. County officials learned of the decision during a Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting Jan. 24.
“I’m just so pleased with the progress we are making in the area, and I see (transit) as a big asset to the entire county,” said Manatee County Commissioner Donna Hayes, who has lobbied for public transit in the East County for the last five years. “We should have had it three years ago when (the economy) was declining. It’s unfortunate we have to wait another three years, but (I understand it’s a process).”
Manatee County will have to match a FDOT Transit Service Development Grant of $1.09 million in operational dollars over a three-year period once funding becomes available.
Manatee County Area Transit Manager Ralf Heseler said the county has been applying to the state for a service development grant, which provides seed money to establish new service, since about 2005. The county’s last submission in 2008 is the one being used as the basis for funding. Heseler said the county did not apply in 2009 or 2010 because county administration felt it would be difficult to find matching funding for the project in light of a shrinking budget.
“The hope is that in 2015, that funding would no longer be an issue — or not as much as an issue,” he said.
Although the funding delay could prove beneficial from a funding standpoint, Heseler said the need for transit in the East County is immediate.
With several colleges in the area, including Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and its future dental campus, Manatee Technical Institute, the State College of Florida and Keiser University, students need transportation to and from school and housing, as do workers and patrons of facilities such as the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, medical and office complexes and commercial nodes.
“(Transit) is a service our students actually would need and also our employees here,” Keiser University Campus President Todd Pearson said. “It would be a whole lot better if the bus went a little farther. Sometimes, the climate is not where you would want it to be.”
Manatee County already has 15 fixed-route buses in service daily as well as 21 paratransit vehicles, which provide more of a “door-to-door” service to elderly or disabled residents, for example, rather than following a schedule for daily stops, Heseler said.
But the need for transit services is still on the rise. With the economic downturn, MCAT saw an 8% or more increase in bus usage, compared to the typical 3-4% annual increase, Heseler said.
He noted that same increase leveled off last year, likely due to an increase in unemployment and a corresponding need for bus service. But with fuel prices increasing once again, the trend may soon be back on the rise.
“(Transit service is) needed now and in the future,” Heseler said, adding a growing number of residents from the East County have been inquiring about transit in the area since he joined the county in 2002. “That demand is growing. Some years ago, the density and population may not have been enough to warrant (the FDOT grant). But we feel now is the right time to (start).
“You want to grow transit with the community,” he said. “If the county had the money today, we would probably be starting the (transit) service within the next several months.”
The 2008 grant proposal MCAT submitted to the state estimated ridership at 273 people daily in the first year, 390 daily in the second year and 468 daily in the third year, bringing total ridership to 142,740 annually by the grant’s end. The proposal suggests three buses running at 13 service hours daily for 39 round trips per day.
Heseler said those numbers were generated from the latest Transit Development Plan completed by a transit industry consulting firm for the county and are based on estimates that the county’s four main corridors — U.S. 41, State Road 64, State Road 70 and U.S. 301 — will continue to show significant population density with rapid business increases and major developments along the I-75 corridor by 2030.
Lakewood Ranch is expected to have up to 8,000 more homes and 3.6 million more square feet of commercial/office space and hotel/recreation developments in the next 10 years, he said.
Rex Jensen, president and CEO of Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, said introducing public transit “makes a deal of sense,” and he would have engineers look into incorporating bus turnouts in strategic areas as the company prepares to widen Lakewood Ranch Boulevard north of S.R. 70.
“We have a lot of stuff out here,” Jensen said. “The world generally doesn’t think of anything this side of U.S. 41. There’s as much development and as many jobs here as in other places in the community.”
Jensen also said FDOT’s announcement gives him more confidence in moving forward with more urban development forms slated for the Ranch north of S.R. 70, and public transit also could be a valuable asset if Lakewood Ranch develops an entertainment district there, as planned.
“That could be facilitated with this,” he said. “It’s a process we’re going to have to let unfold. We will have to look at things we might be able to do. Now that Donna (Hayes) and others have been successful in getting it this far, we kind of owe it to them to work with them to see how to make (it work).”
Michael Howe, executive director for the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization said the MPO has had public transit for the Lakewood Ranch area on its master plan since 2000.
“This is good news — great news — and I think (it’s) very much needed for that community out there to at least experiment with a transit service to service the hospitals, the schools and all of the businesses, (as well as) residents,” he said. “If you put the stops at the appropriate locations it will be utilized.”
In Manatee County, the two closest MCAT bus stops to Lakewood Ranch are located at the Walmart on State Road 70 and at Traveler’s Oasis, located just east of the Walmart on State Road 64, adjacent to Interstate 75.
The Manatee Avenue Route, which ends at Traveler’s Oasis, transports riders from Manatee County Public Beach east along Manatee Avenue to stops at Carlton Arms, Braden River Plaza, Woodbury Apartments, the Walmart on S.R. 64 and then to its easternmost stop at Traveler’s Oasis, among others.
Additionally, Heseler noted there are 47 actual stops between MCAT’s DeSoto Station, adjacent to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, and the State Road 70 Walmart. Travel time for that section of the route is about 30 minutes.
In Sarasota County, the easternmost stop is located at University Parkway and North Cattlemen Road. The route takes riders from the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport to University Town Center before heading south and then west to The Landings shopping center near the intersection of Proctor Road and U.S. 41. This route also takes about an hour one-way, as shown on SCAT’s website.
Only Sarasota County’s Route 15 travels sections of University Parkway during the week. There are no Manatee County routes along State Road 70 east of the Walmart, nor is there a Manatee County route along University Parkway.
MCAT SYSTEM-WIDE ANNUAL RIDERSHIP
MCAT Manager Ralf Heseler said transit programs are typically subsidized. User fees cover about 18% of costs associated with the service.
FY 2010 — 1,320,169
FY 2009 — 1,255,903
FY 2008 — 1,231,000
FY 2007 — 1,134,759
FY 2006 — 1,242,165
FY 2005 — 1,188,762
FY 2004 — 1,133,760
FY 2003 — 1,073,436
FY 2002 — 892,336
FY 2001 — 742,490
* Sarasota County Area Transit ridership is estimated at more than 9,000 riders daily.
WOES AND PROS
• Bus riders said negatives to taking public transit to and from work or other locations include hiking long distances from or to bus stops, inclement weather and extended travel times.
• FCCI employee Ruth Russo said when she lived in Palmetto, it sometimes took her two hours to get to work.
• Route schedules do not always accommodate individuals who work in the evening or must handle an errand after work, riders said.
• On a positive note, riders said taking the bus is much more cost effective than driving to work, particularly if traveling long distances.
• Keiser University employee John Connelly, who took Sarasota Area Transit to work from 2003 to 2007, said for individuals without vehicles, public transportation is more reliable than coordinating rides with friends and co-workers and also offers riders time to study or prepare for work as they travel.
Over the years, MCAT officials have reviewed several potential bus routes in the East County, but Heseler said three preliminary scenarios have been developed based on funding.
As per those scenarios, the bus routes likely would start at DeSoto Station by Manatee County Sherriff’s Office, and head east along State Road 70. Scenario No. 1 would take the bus south on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and toward University Parkway to connect at Benderson Development’s University Town Center Project, where the Super Target is located, and connect with Sarasota County transit for a regional connection.
A second option would be to take S.R. 70 east to Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and head north to S.R. 64 and connect to a bus stop roughly at S.R. 64 and Interstate 75. For the third scenario, the county would run both those routes at the same time.
“It depends on how much money would be available and whatever the board (of county commissioners) would decide,” Heseler said. “We would be reaching out to the community and asking what route would (it) have (us do). We think it’s appropriate to reach out to the community and get their input. They may know something we don’t know. We like to partner everyone with us.”
Buses likely would visit stops at a frequency of once per hour, or possibly once every 30 minutes if funding permits, Heseler said.
BY THE NUMBERS
$1.25 — Cost per adult for bus ride
7,000 — Average number of passenger trips monthly for paratransit service
29,000 — Average number of passenger trips monthly on trolley service to barrier islands
95,000 — Average number of passenger trips monthly for fixed-route service
$8 million — Annual cost to operate MCAT
Source: MCAT Manager Ralf Heseler