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Sarasota Thursday, May 23, 2019 6 months ago

SCAT consultant points to potential partnership with Uber

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Sarasota County officials want to make SCAT a more efficient but less costly system. One way to do that, according to an adviser, is to partner with Uber.
by: Samantha Chaney Staff Writer

 After the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners decided in March that privatizing the Sarasota County Area Transit system was not to the community’s benefit, they decided it was time to seek guidance from a third-party professional.

Enter TransPro, a Tampa-based transportation consulting company that is working to pinpoint less expensive, more efficient options for SCAT operations. CEO Mark Aesch suggested to commissioners at a Tuesday workshop that a partnership with external transportation providers, such as Uber, might be the solution.

“At this point, I’m not interested in surrendering [SCAT],” Commissioner Al Maio said. “We need to work on this and fix it.”

Since 2017, Sarasota County has been exploring the idea of handing public transportation operations to a private company with the goal of saving tax dollars. However, when TransDev — the county’s top choice for a contractor — presented themselves to the board March 12, commissioners did not seem convinced that the county would be saving enough money to justify making the jump.

They elected to leave SCAT as is until a better option came to light, hiring TransPro to offer its guidance.

“As we begin to move over the course of the next 60 days, we’ll bring in best practice. There is going to be more of this innovation rather than less,” Aesch told commissioners. “We will recognize success can be flexible. It doesn’t have to be getting on a bus with the SCAT logo on the side.”

The model in question, according to Aesch, is already in use in Dallas, Texas and Pinellas County, Florida.

Dallas’s transportation system, DART, is partnering with Uber as part of a one-year pilot project. The $1.2 million in funding for the pilot comes from a federal grant. In Dallas, riders get up to two free Uber rides to or from an eligible DART station in designated areas, during specific times of day, surrounding those stations. Typically, UberPool services connect riders to or from homes or businesses to public transit. Up to two other riders could share the Uber vehicle. Beyond the two free rides, discount rides are available in those same designated areas.

According to TransPro CEO Mark Aesch the county's general fund expenditures for SCAT have increased by 13% between Fiscal Year 2014 and Fiscal Year 2018

Pinellas County’s PSTA system, on the other hand, has partnered with both Uber and United Taxi to provide a 24-hour “Direct Connect” service that is funded by using the money it saved in cutting routes that were not previously used enough by its riders.

How commissioners would choose to fund a SCAT-Uber partnership, should they decide to take an interest, is not yet clear.

What they did say, however, was that a partnership would need to be strictly defined in terms of usage.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler used himself as an example, citing his use of Uber to get to and from home in a private capacity if he might be out for “a couple glasses of wine” after work. In instances such as these, he argued that the county should not be funding every citizens’ daily Uber rides.

“I think we need to consider partnering [with Uber] where they pick you up at your door and drop you off at a bus station,” he said. “I don’t want to create an Uber program where they’re paying for Christian Ziegler’s Uber… just something for the buses.”

Commissioner Nancy Detert said she felt that an Uber partnership could be well suited to shuttling community members in need of aid to the hospital or to get other forms of medical treatment.

However, it is too soon to know what direction the county may take in the future. TransPro officials are scheduled to return to the board in July with a more detailed presentation of alternative options based on the initial May workshop.

“This is what I’m looking for — and it’s not just someone to take over our system and run it a bit cheaper — we really need to think outside the box and apply some best practices across the county to what’s unique here,” Commission Chair Charles Hines said. “We’re not going to solve it today.”

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