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East County Friday, Nov. 19, 2021 2 weeks ago

MCAT explores service options for Lakewood Ranch

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MCAT, which last served Lakewood Ranch in 2016, might consider an on-demand service in the near future.
by: Scott Lockwood Staff Writer

As growth in eastern Manatee County continues at a rapid pace, Manatee County Area Transit officials continue to look at ways they can bring transit service back to the Lakewood Ranch area.

MCAT Planning Manager Jonathan Roberson said MCAT’s fixed route service is most productive west of Interstate 75 and into the western part of Manatee County. Earlier this year, MCAT’s staff members began reaching out to the Lakewood Ranch

community to gauge any potential unmet demand for new public transportation services in the community.

On-demand services have been growing, with service on Longboat Key and for those traveling to Port Manatee, and that’s one option MCAT is looking at as a possibility for the Lakewood Ranch area. Roberson said MCAT continues to explore ways to bring the Mobility-On-Demand services to areas not served by fixed routes. The on-demand service works by a rider making a reservation by calling MCAT or using online services on the county website.

Lakewood Ranch could see MCAT on-demand shuttle buses like this one starting in October 2023. The on-demand services allow riders to schedule trips within a defined service area.

“MCAT’s MOD service concept is an on-demand/call-ahead service with a defined service area, allowing residents and visitors the ability to access locations not commonly connected to fixed routes,” Roberson said. “MCAT staff is working on a Lakewood Ranch MOD service design/concept that would include a zone that allows customers to connect to MCAT’s Route 12, LECOM, MTC, Lakewood Ranch Main Street/Downtown/Medical Center and themUTC area (with connections to Sarasota County Area Transit’s Route 2). Such a service would operate from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and provide essential links for all residents and visitors of East County.”

The on-demand service has been a success for MCAT to this point. Roberson said that prior to the pandemic, MCAT’s on-demand service was seeing more than 5,300 annual trips using its on-demand services.

“Ridership is climbing back to this benchmark and is expected to rise further with the tourism season ramping up now,” he said.

Lakewood Ranch Medical Center was served by Sarasota County Area Transit on a fixed route until June 2021. MCAT and SCAT, which operate the joint Route 99 along

Tamiami Trail linking downtown Bradenton, the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and downtown Sarasota, have discussed services in and around the UTC area. Such an expansion might indicate a return to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center.

“MCAT staff has spoken with some of these customers who have requested the service be restored to this area,” Roberson said. “Connecting MCAT’s MOD service to SCAT’s Route 2 service at the UTCC could increase inter-county service connectivity.”

Another reason that the on-demand model might best suit Lakewood Ranch is because fixed bus ridership is most successful in areas that are more urban than Lakewood Ranch. Roberson said MCAT’s “core network” corridors includes Tamiami Trail, Cortez Road, Manatee Avenue and U.S. 301 into Palmetto. Several critical feeder routes provide connectivity from densely populated neighborhoods out to core network routes.

That is something that is lacking in Lakewood Ranch but could change in the future as the area expands.Roberson said that at least initially, MCAT’s existing on-demand service concept might be the best fit for growing lower-density areas, such as Lakewood Ranch. 

Manatee County’s budgeting process operates on a two-year cycle. Roberson said MCAT anticipates requesting a Lakewood Ranch oriented on-demand concept for approval in the county’s fiscal year 2024 budget.

“That would mean service could start as early as October 1, 2023, (the first day of fiscal year 2024) if it is approved by the Manatee County Commission,” he said.

In January 2015, MCAT received requests for service extending farther east of its DeSoto Station. Route 6 was extended eastward along State Road 70 and north on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to the LECOM Campus, where the route ended.

Manatee County resident Dorothy Washington waits for an MCAT bus to arrive at the Walmart on State Road 64 on Nov. 11. That stop is one of the closest MCAT stops to Lakewood Ranch.

Roberson said that ridership along S.R. 70 was strong up to the Walmart at 87th Street and Ranch Lake Boulevard. It was sparse east of that location, especially in the Lakewood Ranch area along Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, where the LECOM stop averaged just two trips per day.

As part of the route optimization effort, the S.R. 70 portion of the Route 6 extension (west of I-75) stayed in service (becoming the new Route 12). The route segment east of Walmart (on S.R. 70) and into Lakewood Ranch was removed due to very low ridership.

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said the service into Lakewood Ranch was paid for with a matching grant from the state at that time. Manatee County paid $1.3 million, but Baugh said the county couldn’t justify paying the full amount after the grant expired in 2016 with the low demand.

“We just didn’t have the ridership to qualify,” Baugh said. “I was the one who made the motion to discontinue it, and I felt really bad about it because it was in my district. But I couldn’t justify nearly $3 million a year when no one was using it.”

Despite service being removed in 2016, MCAT continues to monitor the growing residential and commercial development in eastern Manatee County, particularly in

Lakewood Ranch and Parrish. Roberson said that an increasing set of residential and commercial destinations and employment areas — such as Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, Lakewood Ranch Main Street/Town Center, Manatee Technical College, LECOM, and the UTC area — offer some potential for MCAT’s flexible Mobility-On-Demand services.

As Lakewood Ranch continues to grow and new homes are being built along state roads 64 and 70, Baugh said she might be open to trying to bring back fixed route transit services.

“There’s a lot of houses and apartments going up, but the majority of those moving don’t move here without transportation,” she said. “It is something that I would love to try because we need to get some cars off the road. It won’t be this year, but maybe in the future.”

 

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