The City Commission approved a $338,000 contract with a private operator to start a free, on-demand transportation service in the heart of the city.
Within the next 60 days, a new on-demand transit service will make its debut in downtown Sarasota.
The City Commission voted 5-0 Monday to approve a contract with The Gotcha Group, a Charleston, S.C.-based transportation company that will operate the new service. The two-year contract will pay up to $338,747.50 to subsidize the private operation, with the goal of making the service self-sustaining by the time the contract is up.
The Gotcha Group will operate a fleet of seven six-seat electric vehicles in the downtown area. The boundaries of the free service are 14th Street, School Avenue, Mound Street and the bayfront.
Users will be able to request rides via a mobile app, phone number or by hailing a vehicle on the road. The city and The Gotcha Group are targeting an average wait time of 5-10 minutes. The service will run from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Officials said the transit option is in keeping with the city’s goal of relieving traffic problems by encouraging the use of alternative modes of transportation.
City Chief Planner Steve Stancel said the total subsidy amount could be lower if the free ride service generates more revenue than staff’s initial projections. He expressed confidence the free service would eventually be able to pay for itself.
“Their revenue is based on advertisements,” Stancel said. “It can take a couple of years to build those advertisements.”
Although the operator mostly serves college towns, The Gotcha Group Vice President Griffin Blackwelder believes the transit option will be a success in Sarasota.
“We’re excited to be here, and we can’t wait to get started,” Blackwelder said.
City Commissioner Susan Chapman asked city staff if they shared Blackwelder’s belief that Sarasota residents would use the service. Stancel, Parking Manager Mark Lyons and Downtown Improvement District Operations Manager John Moran all said they believed the program is set up to succeed.
Moran said The Gotcha Group had success in other markets, and Lyons said the electric vehicles meant the cost of running the service would be minimal compared to other transit options.
“This is lean and mean,” Lyons said.
The company will begin its service within the next two months. In the meantime, city is still working on developing a name for its newest transportation option. Stancel said one option has already been batted around — “S Car Go” — but not everyone involved is enamored with that idea.
The downtown circulator isn’t the only project the city is working on to help alleviate traffic troubles. Here are a few others:
As the city began investigating the viability of installing a water taxi service linking the mainland to St. Armands and Longboat Key, a private company applied to operate its own ferry between Sarasota and Anna Maria Island.
At the Feb. 21 City Commission meeting, the board is set to consider a proposal from Paradise Boat Tours to operate the ferry service. The transportation option would also allow users to request rides via an on-demand water taxi in Sarasota.
The company currently offers tours, but general manager Sherman Baldwin said the new hourly ferry service would be designed to serve residents who want to avoid driving.
“Our service will be focusing on commuters, day-trippers, locals getting around Southwest Florida without the use of a vehicle,” Baldwin said. “We think that’s really important — the tourists will be a bonus.”
Baldwin said Paradise Boat Tours would be prepared to begin operating the ferry and water taxi service within a few weeks of the city’s approval.
The Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization has committed funding to a study designed to address the traffic traveling to and from the barrier islands.
That study likely won’t be finalized until next year, but officials are hopeful the work will identify short- and long-term solutions.
“This only happens for 11 weeks of the year,” MPO Transportation Planner Colleen McGue said. “The study is looking at the tourist season like it’s a special event — almost like it’s the Super Bowl.”
Visit Sarasota County is conducting its own study to find out what transportation options tourists would like to use. Visit Sarasota President Virginia Haley said visitors generally don’t have the same concerns about traffic as locals, but tourists are still interested in getting around without a car.
One of the city’s long-term plans for easing congestion is installing a series of roundabouts along U.S. 41.
On Monday, the City Commission approved five agreements with the Florida Department of Transportation pertaining to the first two roundabouts, which will be installed at 10th Street and 14th Street. Construction is expected to begin this fall.
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