Siesta Key to go ‘MOD’ with SCAT public transit plan

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By Rachel Brown Hackney

Sarasota News Leader

For years, Sarasota County commissioners directed staff to pursue initiatives that could reduce the county’s mass transit expenses.

In late August 2017, the board received an unsolicited letter from a firm that was interested in implementing a regional transportation system. That led to commission approval in January 2018 for staff to issue a Request for Information, which was designed to help staff members figure out how best to operate the Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) bus system more efficiently while providing better service to the public.

Finally, in late October, SCAT Director Jane Grogg won the commissioners’ unanimous approval to go “MOD,” so to speak.

As a result of staff’s work with the Tindale Oliver consulting firm of Tampa, Grogg pointed out, a new Mobility On Demand (MOD) service will be created to ensure that everyone who has been using the county’s bus system will continue to have access to transportation. However, their trips might entail a driver picking them up at their home, instead of their having to take the bus. The primary factor is that the service can be provided within SCAT’s budget.

And Siesta Key will be one of four new zones on which SCAT will focus as it implements the changes, which are expected to be fully in effect by March or April 2021. The Siesta Key service would operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays and from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays.

“Anyone that had some kind of service before will continue to have access to service [and] there should be additional … flexibility options [and a] faster response time,” Grogg told the commissioners.

As part of the proposal, SCAT staff plans to eliminate a number of its fixed bus routes with low demand. Instead, the four Mobility On Demand (MOD) zones will be implemented, Grogg said. A person will be able to use a mobile app, the internet or the county call center to reserve a trip, with the target that each rider will have to wait no longer than 30 minutes for the driver to show up.

Persons desiring to do so will be able to connect to a fixed-route bus from what staff is calling “mobility hubs,” she added.

Along with Siesta Key, the other three MOD zones are Lido-Longboat-St. Armands keys; North Port; and Venice-Englewood, Grogg noted.

“How much of a better experience is that?” Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed out after Grogg’s presentation.

“You’ve got to be able to move with the times,” Chair Michael Moran added.

“I think we need to state why we’re doing this,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said of the proposal Grogg presented that day. “What we’re trying to do is spend the same amount of money and provide better service.”

One slide Grogg showed the commissioners pointed to answers to a county survey regarding persons’ interest in using SCAT if certain improvements were made. If more direct service were provided to attractions such as the beaches, malls and the downtown areas of the county’s municipalities, then 51.6% of survey respondents said they would be likely to use SCAT.

With a same-day reservation system utilizing a curb-to-curb service, similar to Uber or Lyft, then 49.5% of the respondents indicated their likelihood of using SCAT, the slide also noted.

A consultant’s study of the SCAT system showed that the annual operating cost of the current bus route network is $10,560,138. That analysis said the county could save $2,494,561 by implementing changes in the service.

The MOD program would require 18 vehicles, consultant Tindale Oliver suggested, with anticipation of 66,034 annual revenue hours. The firm estimated the annual operating cost would be $3.17 million. However, the new program would be expected to replace almost all of the county’s existing paratransit services — which transport persons with disabilities — in the four proposed MOD zones, saving the county $1,026,480 a year.

Thus, Tindale Oliver put net annual savings for SCAT at $351,418.

Through November, Grogg told the board members, staff would work with Tindale Oliver on developing what she called the “Fixed Route Run Cut.” Then, if all goes as expected, she continued, she would be back before the commissioners no later than January 2021 with a proposed contract related to market analysis and branding, as well as a MOD contract.

“Staff is preparing for communicating new service information and scheduling to the public,” a county staff memo noted. “To ensure that SCAT customers are aware of the new service plan and route modifications,” the memo said, “the information will be posted … on the SCAT website, via social media, on buses, at transfer stations, and as appropriate at SCAT bus stops.”

Details of the analysis

The county staff memo provided to the commissioners in advance of the Oct. 21 meeting pointed out that Tindale Oliver began a route optimization analysis and work plan on June 3.

The firm’s resulting report, dated Oct. 8, noted that in February, the commissioners directed the SCAT staff “to move forward with an implementation plan for a new SCAT Mobility Network.”

“Ridership is a key measure of success in the transit industry,” the study pointed out. From 2009 through 2011, it said, SCAT ridership increased steadily, climbing 13%. Then passenger counts reached a plateau between 2.8 million and 2.9 million; that came between 2011 and 2014, the study noted. By 2019, the study added, ridership had declined by 15% from the 2014 peak, settling at 2.4 million passengers in 2018 and 2019.

Already, SCAT Routes 4, 11, 18 and 33 have been suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as SCAT’s webpages point out. Instead, on-demand, curb-to-curb service has been implemented.

Route 11 was the primary service to Siesta Key. Route 33 also ferried passengers between the Amish-Mennonite community of Pinecraft and Siesta Public Beach.

Siesta Sand
Author: Siesta Sand

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