Sarasota County’s Buses to Nowhere

The Sarasota Board of County Commission believes it is their role to provide public transportation. Automobiles, and the emissions they cause, are the culprits. Cars must be replaced by other means of transportation such as: light rail, high speed rail and now special bus routes. As one commissioner put it “we are subsidizing cars”. So the County Commission wants to continue to subsidize the Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) buses at a loss of $10 million annually and create a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system as well. BRT and SCAT make the County Commissioners believe they are doing a public service by providing ever more costly public transportation with few riders.

Sarasota County government runs two bus services and both are monopolies. SCAT is run by the County and the other run by Sarasota County School Board. Both are paid for by county property taxpayers. These two mass transit systems are costly and inefficient in their own way. Neither would last long if privately owned. To make them profitable or at least pay for them the actual cost to ride would have to be passed on to the riders.

According to Charles Schelle from Sarasota Patch, “The latest Bus Rapid Transit route will apparently head for a detour. The $100 million transit plan to provide Sarasota with a speedy bus option with limited stops and traffic interruptions had a route set to go from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and south all the way to the Westfield Southgate Mall with several stops in between, with the northern route following an unused Seminole Gulf Railway along Lemon Avenue.”

$100 million for a 20 mile bus route works out to be $5,000,000 a mile. But that is not the full cost.

Schelle reports, “The County has to find ways to fund the $25 million difference, possibly with a transit tax, and the annual operating budget.” These public transit systems always start out underfunded, end up underutilized and the operating costs escalate beyond the initial projections. In other words they are economic failures from the start.

“The commissions focused in on the county Director of Planning and Development Services Rob Lewis’ comments that the Bus Rapid Transit is more about the economic spurs and opportunities areas around the stations can provide and getting people from low income areas to work than being about moving people for sake of reducing congestion. Lewis said staff has not advocated for an altered route,” writes Schelle. There is no explanation on how this bus line helps economic development. Most people do not work at either the Sarasota/Bradenton airport or Westfield Southgate Mall.

County Commissioner Joe Barbetta stated, “I think that we have to look at the BRT as part of a multifaceted plan. SCAT has to be successful or else the BRT doesn’t work. I think a downtown circulator is inevitable for the city or the plan doesn’t work. And the grant funding has to be pursued or else the plan doesn’t work.”

So how do you make SCAT successful? You give away free rides. According to Schelle, “Thursday [April 19, 2012] is Try Transit Day where riders on regular fixed-route SCAT or commuter Express buses will have free fares. On all other days, the standard fare for a single-ride is $1.25 for the regular fixed-route service and $2.50 for the Express service.” These fairs do not come close to covering the cost of SCAT and cannot cover the operational costs of BRT.

SCAT does not break even and therefor is not successful. SCAT will never be successful. The buses run empty, it loses money as far as the eye can see and its purpose is to transport poor people. Success is based on providing a service to people who want it, not creating a service with no real market. SCAT and BRT are buses to nowhere. That is what government does when it spends other people’s money to build failures.