County administrator makes it clear staff plans to keep Siesta trolley running well beyond pilot program

Tom Harmer announces six-month extension through early February but says staff is working on a strategy to make the route permanent

Commissioner Alan Maio (third from left) prepares to cut the ribbon to officially launch the service on March 20. With him are (from left) Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce Chair Mark Smith, County Commissioner Mike Moran, SCAT Director Rocky Burke and Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham. Rachel Hackney photo

Since the free Siesta Key Breeze trolley was launched on March 20, county commissioners have joined representatives of island organizations in lauding its effectiveness. In recognition of its high ridership levels, Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer has assured the County Commission and the public that the circulator will continue to circulate well beyond the Aug. 11 ending date for the initial pilot program.

“We believe we can extend it for at least another six months,” Harmer reported during the board’s May 26 budget workshop. “It will give us a chance to put together a funding strategy for long-term stability of the route,” he added. “We’re optimistic that we can do that.”

Mark Smith, a Siesta Key architect who is chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, pointed out during public remarks that the extra six months would keep the trolley running until Feb. 11, 2018. He added, “Valentine’s Day historically is the peak of the season, so I can’t tell you how popular you all will be if the trolley stops at the same time that we have our maximum amount of visitors on the Key. … I urge you all to keep this trolley going, forever and ever, amen.”

Running on a constant loop from Turtle Beach Park on the southern end of the Key to Siesta Village, the trolley operates seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 11:59 p.m., including holidays. The cost per revenue hour is $73.95, according to figures provided to the board for the workshop. That puts the annual expense at $1,066,174.

When Commissioner Michael Moran — who participated in the March 20 ribbon-cutting by the Siesta Village gazebo — asked whether staff had consulted with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) about further funding for the trolley, Harmer replied, “That’s all in process right now.” As for the amount of state financial support the county might win, Harmer noted only, “We’re not anticipating zero. … I think there’s a lot of interest in the route at the state level, as well. Everyone sees how popular it is.”

Not only is the service free, but Harmer also noted that all a person has to do is flag down the vehicle to catch a ride if the person is between the regular stops.

Siesta Chamber members and county staff board the Breeze on March 20 for a loop from Siesta Village to Turtle Beach. File photo

Referring to the annual expense of the circulator, Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out, “Sometimes, for a million bucks, you’re getting 5 million dollars’ worth of good will and just a happier experience.” She continued, “I would really kind of support keeping it free for at least another full year, till people get used to it and appreciate it. Then, if it becomes too much money, we look at charging people.”
Still, Detert pointed out, charging riders entails its own set of problems, including the need to make change. “It just becomes a very complex [issue].”

“For right now,” she said, “anything free in today’s world is a lovely surprise. We do cater to tourists and vacationers and want them to have a good experience while they’re here.”

“Commissioner Detert said what I was about to say and said it very well,” added Commissioner Alan Maio, who represents Siesta Key in District 4. “We don’t always do everything right,” he said, noting that members of the public readily point to things they feel the board and staff do not handle well. The Breeze, he continued, “washed away heartburn. It was a tsunami of heartburn being washed away.”

Maio praised Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) staff for the way it had worked with representatives of Key organizations who long had called for an open-air, island-atmosphere trolley. “It’s just been an enormous thing.”

Drawing laughter, he added, “Even with my sense of embellishment and exaggeration, I would never come up with the actual ridership numbers that independent people are giving us. They are phenomenal.”

Figures provided by SCAT showed that from March 20 through April 30, the total number of riders was 58,478.

Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

Maio further concurred with Detert about wanting to see the service remain free, at least through the six-month extension of the current contract.

Staff may have to re-advertise the bid for the service, Harmer explained, but extending the current contract for six months will allow staff to work on the details of a longer-term agreement. The latter can include tweaks to the route, he indicated.

Smith of the Siesta Chamber told The Sarasota News Leader in a May 30 telephone interview that he remains hopeful the trolley’s route can be broadened to encompass stops on Higel Avenue, with the Breeze eventually traveling into Siesta Village from both the north and south.

Words of support

During the most recent quarterly Siesta Chamber meeting for members — on May 17 — Smith reported on his plan to appear at the budget workshop to plead for continuation of the trolley service. On May 26, he addressed the board during the Open to the Public period at the outset of the session.

Given the total ridership figure through April, Smith said, the average number of Breeze passengers was about 1,400 per day. Through Easter — which was April 16 — the average was nearer the 1,600 mark on a daily basis, he added. “Close to 60,000 riders represents about 30,000 cars … being taken off Midnight Pass Road, Beach Road and Ocean Boulevard,” he pointed out, given the expectation that each vehicle would have at least two people in it during tourist season.

Just the previous day, Smith pointed out, Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University — Dr. Beach — had proclaimed Siesta Beach No. 1 in his Top Ten list for the U.S. for 2017. One of the factors Leatherman cited, Smith noted, was the addition of the trolley service, which cut down on passenger vehicles on the island.

Smith added that he had 600 signatures on a petition supporting the continuation of the Breeze’s operation.

A second speaker, Diane Erne, vice president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, joined Smith in voicing support for the trolley.

A map shows the current route for the Breeze. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Condo Council represents more than 90 condominium complexes on Siesta Key among its members, she explained. “We want you to know how strongly that we all support the trolley. It has been a tremendous boost to visitors and residents” and to the condominium complexes, where so many of the tourists stay, she added.

If any of the commissioners ever has been on the Key trying to find a parking place at the beach or has been hungry and has tried to find a parking space so he or she could grab a bite to eat, Erne said, “I don’t need to tell you how desperately we need traffic control, reduction of congestion and more parking spaces available.”

Erne implored the board members to “very seriously consider long-term, permanent funding for the trolley.” She continued, “Our beaches are beautiful; we have wonderful amenities. But the luster of the beach being No. 1 is going to pale,” if people have to wait in long lines with no guarantee they can park their vehicles.

Erne also encouraged the commission to expand the route.

Although no one from the Siesta Key Association (SKA) appeared that morning, as recently as the May 5 meeting, that nonprofit also was seeking signatures in support of the trolley service. Additionally, SKA Director Gene Kusekoski encouraged members to fill out an online survey about the trolley. Already, he noted, participation was more than 30%, which was “quite a good rate of return for a survey …”

Applause for the county’s action

During the May 30 telephone interview with the News Leader, Smith of the Siesta Chamber said Commissioner Maio called him after the May 26 workshop to report the good news about the trolley.

Mark Smith. File photo

Smith reiterated the positive impact the service has had on island traffic. People attending the annual Siesta Fiesta art and crafts show in late April in Siesta Village had talked about the advantages of the service, he added. For that matter, he continued, just the other night, he and his daughter had walked Siesta Beach all the way to Point of Rocks and then headed out to South Midnight Pass Road to a SCAT stop, where they were able to board the trolley to go back into Siesta Village.

The Siesta Chamber board recently committed another $5,000 to marketing for the Breeze, Smith said; it earlier provided $5,000 for banners, signs, buttons and even videos for Facebook and YouTube to promote the service.

In the May 30 interview, Smith also talked of how dreams of a trolley service dominated many discussions at Siesta Key Village Association (SKVA) and Siesta Chamber meetings through the years. (The SKVA was absorbed by the Chamber at the end of 2016, after SKVA members approved the action that fall.)

Long-time directors of the Village Association lobbied for decades to see the trolley become a reality, Smith pointed out — Russell Matthes, Helene Hyland, Wendall Jacobsen and Bob Stein. The creation of the Breeze, Smith added, “has been almost a Holy Grail type episode.”

Moreover, Smith said, “It’s always important in any endeavor with government … that you have someone champion the cause, because you just need someone that can make a couple of phone calls and nudge folks … and Commissioner Maio has been that. We’re extremely grateful for it.”

The other commissioners this time have proven “very supportive,” too, Smith noted. “It really hasn’t been a hard sale.”