A solution may be brewing for those interested in taking public transit across Longboat Key.
If someone wanted to use public transit to get from one end of Longboat Key to another, it would be an ordeal that involves multiple different systems and stops.
Currently, Manatee County serves Longboat Key through a shuttle system that goes from the north boundary of the island down to Bay Isles Parkway. From there, Sarasota County’s Breeze OnDemand system picks up and can take travelers into St. Armands, downtown Sarasota or beyond.
But in the town’s Oct. 31 joint meeting with Manatee County, Longboat Key commissioners further discussed the potential for a unified solution.
Officials from all sides believe a point of agreement and recommendation is in sight.
“The town has been looking for an islandwide solution for four to five years now,” Longboat Key Town Manager Howard Tipton said at the meeting.
Longboat Key officials have been in contact with officials from both counties, and Sarasota County has proposed to extend its OnDemand service to include all of Longboat Key, up to Coquina Beach.
From Coquina Beach, transit travelers could pick up Manatee County’s public bus or the Anna Maria Island Trolley.
Longboat Key Mayor Ken Schneier said a solution might help ease the number of cars on the road in a congested area.
“Traffic, especially during the season, is the biggest problem by far on the island that we cannot solve,” Schneier said. “So we’re taking the steps we can to try to resolve it, and one is to try to make the best uniform transit system that we can have to solve the needs.”
Manatee County Public Works Director Chad Butzow presented the latest updates to commissioners on Oct. 31. He first compared the services offered by the counties.
The OnDemand service in Sarasota has been serving Longboat Key since about 2021. The rideshare system allows users to call a ride through a smartphone app, for a fee of $2. Up to four passengers can share a ride.
Manatee County’s service is currently free until early 2024, when fares will be reevaluated.
But one of the main differences between county services are the reservation systems.
The name of Sarasota’s OnDemand system speaks for itself: Users can call a ride, and it will send a driver. Manatee County’s Longboat Key shuttle asks for an advance reservation, by 5 p.m. the day before the requested ride.
Another contrast came when Butzow presented the ridership review.
In 2023 year to date, Sarasota County’s OnDemand served 26,057 riders in Longboat Key. Manatee County’s Longboat Key shuttle, on the other hand, only reached 4,072 riders.
Butzow also said the majority of Manatee County’s reservations were people getting to and from work. Longboat Key Commissioner-at-Large BJ Bishop confirmed Butzow’s claim, saying she’s seen a few daily riders using the Manatee County shuttle to get to Zota Beach Resort.
Now, Manatee County needs to consider the offer from Sarasota County. Sarasota County proposed to absorb Manatee County’s Longboat Key territory into its OnDemand service.
Sarasota County would act as a “vendor” in this interlocal agreement, and Manatee County would need to pay $30.67 per trip to Sarasota County.
Butzow said that in looking at Manatee County’s current numbers, $30.67 is a low cost. But if ridership were to grow and get closer to Sarasota County’s numbers, the cost could tip $600,000 a year.
Right now, Manatee County’s costs to operate the Longboat Key shuttle is around $200,000 to $250,000 a year. This includes driver salary, as well as department expenses.
The shuttle has a lot of “dwell time,” Butzow said, where it sits to be available for the Longboat Key zone.
In considering the options, Butzow believes that some Federal Transit Administration grant money may be able to help with the payments to Sarasota County, but he needs to make sure that’s a possibility before committing.
Longboat Key commissioners provided local insights, saying that future developments, such as the St. Regis Longboat Key and Whitney Plaza Community Center, will further the island’s needs for a uniform transit system.
Manatee County residents may want to come use the community center, and St. Regis employees may be traveling from Bradenton or Cortez.
“And to have to stop and find a new type of transportation, from Publix on, makes no sense,” Longboat Key District 2 Commissioner Penny Gold said.
Schneier and Tipton both are in favor of the solution, saying it solves the connectivity problem and could be a cost-saver for Manatee County.
“Ideally, if the contract is out there and it’s possible to get this going before or into this winter season, that would be dramatically helpful to us,” Schneier said.
Butzow couldn’t commit to that timeline and said more pressure would need to be put on both parties and legal teams to get the deal completed.