Bay Runner trolley breaks ridership record in January

Company that operates service anticipates that March and April will see high figures, as well

In March 2017, Sarasota County launched a long-sought, free trolley on Siesta Key to provide an alternative to driving around the island — especially when traffic congestion is at its worst, during high tourist season.

Having championed the service — for which Siesta business leaders had lobbied for years — then-Commissioner Alan Maio admitted years later to having fretted that ridership might prove too low to justify the funding the county was providing for the initiative.

Maio chuckled in acknowledging those worries as he and his colleagues formally celebrated the 1 millionth rider on the Siesta Key Breeze. That occurred in July 2022.

In a similar manner, on Nov. 1, 2021, when the Sarasota City Commission voted 4-1 to launch a free, open-air trolley that would circulate between downtown Sarasota and Lido Key Beach, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch voiced concerns about the $4.4-million contract with CPR Medical Transport LLC of Washington, D.C. — the same company that operates the Siesta trolley.

Ahearn-Koch cast the sole “No” vote after the November 2021 discussion, saying she would have preferred a pilot program, first, to ensure that demand would be sufficient to warrant the expense.

However, then-Mayor Erik Arroyo countered her concerns: “Siesta Key has had success with a trolley, and we expect Sarasota will, too,” he said.

In its first year, with riders in only part of March 2017, the Breeze transported 160,166 people, Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) staff reported. In 2019 — the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic began — the trolley had 350,320 riders, SCAT staff showed in a chart provided to The Sarasota News Leader.

After the Bay Runner was launched on March 2, 2022, it did not take long for city staff to point to strong ridership numbers.

In fact, in a Feb. 3 email to City Manager Marlon Brown, Steve Cover, the city’s planning director, wrote that the Bay Runner broke its monthly record in January, serving 16,006 riders.

Since its launch, Cover added, the total number of passengers through January was 130,161.

Cover forwarded to Brown an email from Nathan Reid, general manager of CPR Medical Transport, providing more details.

Reid noted that April 2022 had held the record for the highest passenger count on the Bay Runner before January’s figures were tallied.

“I think March and April are also going to be great months,” Reid added.

Sarasota County “bed tax” data that Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates and her staff release each month have shown that March has been the best month for tourism in the community for years. April also has seen high visitor figures in recent years, especially when Easter falls during that month. (See the related article in this issue.)

Based on the data he had seen, Reid noted in his recent email to city staff, the Bay Runner has proven “even more popular” than it was from the beginning.

In response to a News Leader request last summer, Jan Thornburg, the city’s senior communications manager, provided the following ridership figures for the first four months of the Bay Runner’s operations:

  • March 2022 — 14,705.
  • April 2022 — 14,291.
  • May 2022 — 12,536.
  • June 2022 — 10,842.

Over the July Fourth holiday period last year, the Bay Runner set a single-day passenger record on July 2, then-city Parking Division General Manager Mark Lyons noted in an email to City Manager Brown: 850. (Lyons retired at the end of 2022, his LinkedIn account notes.)

The total number of riders from July 2 through July 4 was 2,253, Lyons added in that email.

With the tag line, “Live more. Drive less,” the Bay Runner runs from 8 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. Its website provides details about the areas the trolley serves, including the St. Armands Circle shopping district.

Additionally, the website notes that riders can use the Bay Runner for commuting, getting to the beach and connecting to Sarasota County’s Legacy Trail.

The Bay Runner app is available from both the Apple Store and Google Play, the website also makes clear.

Passengers can count on a wait of no longer than 30 minutes for one of the vehicles, the website points out.

The city’s Economic Development Fund, the Florida Department of Transportation, and the city’s Downtown Improvement District and St. Armands Business Improvement District have provided the funding to cover the Bay Runner’s operations.