By Charles Schelle
Sarasota's proposed Bus Rapid Transit system could have its route changed from using the Seminole Gulf Railway to routes benefiting U.S. routes 41 or 301.
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.
City and county commissioners are thinking either routes 41 or 301 would be better served as the officials debated the plan at their joint meeting Tuesday afternoon at City Hall.
County Commissioner Jon Thaxton questions the use of the railway to create a new economic corridor and what would happen to development efforts on both state highways.
"I'm not sure we can support both the redevelopment of the North Trail and the economic development of the rail corridor concurrently in these economic times," Thaxton said. "So, I would like to see some thought given to the possibility of developing a new economic corridor in between two existing ones may be counter productive if not cannibalistic and taking some of the energy that might have been directed to the North Trail or towards 301 redevelopment.
"If it's the case, it's probably an unsustainable model," he added.
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.
"I have to admit that I've been looking and am wondering if we really have chosen the best corridor," Patterson said. "I don't want to, as you complete your analysis, completely close the possibility of looking at other possibilities, which to me would include (U.S.) 301, frankly, which is now a six lane road."
The extra space on the road could be used for dedicated BRT lanes, she added.
The "wild thought," as Patterson described it, was partially spark by observations by City Commissioner Pail Caragiulo who felt there should be a look at where the best opportunities are for future development, keying in on Old Bradenton Road.
"We would have a better opportunity to capture maybe future multi-family housing down Old Bradenton Road and some potential development that might or might not go on there as oppose to having it go parallel to TriPar Estates," he said. "No offense to TriPar, but I don't see any uses coming out of TriPar Estates unless I have the wrong demographic."
Ringling College of Art and Design would have to be brought into the conversation as well for their master plan, City Commissioner Willie Charles Shaw said.
The route was selected in 2008 and confirmed by city and county commissions in 2010, Lewis said. Cost estimates for right-of-way and real estate acquisitions are not finished yet, he said, and are being made carefully after the SCAT director Anthony Beckford resigned after a negative evaluation.
"I don't think has been vetted out appropriately is to take an aerial of the proposed path of the BRT and quantify what the possibilities are for nodes of economic development," Patterson said. "That's one of the ways one finances BRT and I don't believe that work's been done, and it's not intuitively apparent what the answer is."
Lewis added that an aerial will be used to take a look at the economic effects and will come back to the commissions with the findings.
Along a stretch of U.S. 41 from Siesta Drive to Waldemere Drive, the center turning lane would be used as the Bus Rapid Transit lane and in certain areas, buses would have to wait for other buses to get by and at traffic signals, the road would be widen about 12 feet to allow for left turns by cars, said Carolyn Eastwood, the county's capital project manager. Buses would have the ability to switch the traffic signals in time to have the right of way, she said.
In other areas, a dedicated lane would be used so the bus could move without having to stop, such as on the railway and a stretch of the four lane Lemon Avenue where a lane in each direction would be used for the BRT, Eastwood said. Some of the lanes and dedicated uses were worked in to meet Federal Transit Administration requirements for the project, she added.
Thirty-five percent of the costs will be for real estate acquisition and 14 percent of the total, or $14 million, would be for the railway and right of way, Eastwood said.
The county has to find ways to fund the $25 million difference, possibly with a transit tax, and the annual operating budget.
Bottom line, according to County Commissioner Joe Barbetta, the BRT is part of a bigger plan.
"I think that we have to look at the BRT as part of a multifaceted plan," he said. "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."
If the commissions opt with Tamiami Trail, BRT would have to fit in with plans for multimodal improvements to the road, which includes installing roundabouts along the way.
Original article published April 18, 2012, by Sarasota Patch (www.sarasotapatch.com).