County Transit staff exploring extension of Siesta trolley route to downtown Sarasota

Staff also in talks with City of Sarasota leaders about potential of taking over operation of Bay Runner

This is a view of a Siesta trolley with its new branding. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Sarasota County’s Breeze Transit staff not only is looking into expanded trips of the Siesta Key trolley to downtown Sarasota but also the potential of taking on the City of Sarasota’s Bay Runner trolley operations, Transit Director Jane Grogg has told the County Commission.

During a May 15 presentation, which was part of the board’s budget workshop that day, Grogg pointed out that the county’s OnDemand service has proven especially successful in the Venice/Englewood Zone and the Downtown Sarasota/Lido/Longboat Zone. However, she noted, it is underperforming on Siesta Key.

What was then Sarasota County Area Transit launched the OnDemand service in four county zones on June 5, 2021. Persons are able to reserve trips through a mobile app for Apple and Google devices and by phone (941-300-1553). In the beginning, the fare for a one-way trip on a smaller vehicle, instead of a bus, was $1.25. Since then, it has risen to $2, Grogg noted on May 15.

Image courtesy Sarasota County

(At one point during the discussion, Commissioner Joe Neunder called the OnDemand fare “probably Sarasota County’s best kept secret and bargain,” as using an Uber or Lyft costs typically $20 to $25, he said.)

A slide Grogg showed the commissioners noted that the estimated annual cost of the OnDemand service on Siesta is $272,000, with the number of trips averaging 6,893 a year. That puts the cost per passenger for the county at $39.43, compared to the $3.77 expense per passenger on the Siesta trolley, which was rebranded early this month as Route 77 Siesta Islander.

This graphic compares the average cost of the county’s four OnDemand zones. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When her staff members began delving into the number of day-to-day trips, she continued, they found about 14 daily OnDemand riders between the mainland and the barrier island. “That could be seven people or so trying to get back and forth each day,” she noted.

Staff did not find any data to support an expansion of the OnDemand service on Siesta, Grogg added. Therefore, staff considered removing the OnDemand zone. Yet, she pointed out, only one Transit bus route serves Siesta from the mainland — Route 33; it operates only from November to April, to serve extra demand during the height of tourist season.

Staff did look into expanding the service period during which Route 33 operates, Grogg noted. However, she said, in 2022, when Transit extended Route 33’s service until the end of May, “The ridership dropped so low, we were seeing [an expense of] about $35 per passenger.”

Yet, given the continual problem of traffic congestion on the Key, Grogg pointed out, staff did not want to eliminate Route 33, even though it offers no service on Sundays and persons must transfer from that bus to buses heading to other destinations.

The next step was an exploration into expanding the Siesta trolley’s route to the mainland, she said, with consideration that it could stop at one or two of Transit’s transfer stations. A slide noted the former Southgate Mall and the Gulf Gate Station as those options.

Then staff delved into more data, she continued.

For example, Grogg noted, a county bus route used to have vehicles operating between Turtle Beach, on the south end of the Siesta, and downtown Sarasota. It had “pretty solid ridership,” she said: approximately 10,000 people a month.

However, after that route was modified to go no farther than Southgate Mall, Grogg added, “The ridership significantly dropped …” The reason, she said, was the loss of the downtown connection.

Transit staff also consulted with staff of Visit Sarasota County, the county’s tourism office, Grogg continued. A 2022 study that Visit Sarasota had commissioned found that about approximately 400,000 visitors who were staying on Siesta indicated a desire to visit downtown Sarasota, while 850,000 people in downtown Sarasota wanted to go to the Key. Those figures meant “a significant potential demand pool,” she pointed out.

Image courtesy Sarasota County

As a result, the Transit staff ended up making the expansion of the Siesta trolley’s route to downtown Sarasota its top recommendation for improving Transit service, with the elimination of the OnDemand zone on the Key. The resources put into that latter zone could be used in other zones, such as those for Venice/Englewood and Downtown/Lido/Longboat, she noted.

She showed the board members a slide with a conceptual route that would run the length of the Key, with stops in the Orange and Osprey avenue neighborhoods in Sarasota, a Southside Village/Hillview Avenue stop, a stop at the former Southgate Mall and then a stop in downtown Sarasota.

Staff estimated that the trip between downtown and Siesta Key Village would be approximately 30 minutes.

The county already uses three trolleys to serve the Key, Grogg noted; a fourth would be needed, bringing the total operational hours per day to 42, raising the annual expense for the trolley to $1,230,000, as shown on a slide.

“I think it’s a terrific idea to do a Siesta Key trolley [to downtown Sarasota,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger told Grogg. “It’ll help the city, for sure.”

Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Bay Runner talks

In discussing the Bay Runner proposal, Grogg explained that she and her staff already have been working with staff of the City of Sarasota on the future of that service. The Bay Runner, which is free — just as the Siesta Trolley has been — travels between downtown Sarasota and St. Armands and Lido keys, she noted.

In those discussions, she added, the potential of bringing the Bay Runner into the Transit fold has been considered.

When Commissioner Joe Neunder asked how the Bay Runner’s expenses are covered, Grogg explained that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) gave the City of Sarasota a grant to assist with the cost. The city is in the third year of that three-year agreement, she noted, though FDOT has committed to three more years of funding, albeit at a lower level. The city has been covering what the grant does not, she added.

(The Downtown Improvement District of the city and what was the St. Armands Business Improvement District also contributed to the Bay Runner’s operations.)

“So you think there could be potential synergy [between the Bay Runner and Transit routes]?” Neunder asked.

She and her staff have been exploring how they could create a system to connect a number of visitor destinations, including the barrier islands and the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, Grogg replied. (In March, the county began providing a special trolley route between specific downtown Sarasota destinations and SRQ.)

This map shows the Bay Runner’s route. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Commissioner Neil Rainford said of Neunder’s remarks, “I heard that completely differently.” Rainford added that he is worried about the potential that taking on the Bay Runner could result in a Transit operating deficit.

The discussions she and her staff have had with city representatives have included the fact that the city’s continued financial support would be needed, Grogg said, “to maintain the characteristics [of the Bay Runner] that they enjoy now.”

“I just want to make sure we’re not taking on additional debt,” Rainford told her.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis noted that county staff cannot just increase its public transportation offerings without first having determined the appropriate fares.

For various reasons, Lewis continued, he and his assistant county administrators and Grogg believe that the county could operate the Bay Runner at a lower cost than the city has been documenting. Nonetheless, Lewis said, the county still would need city financial support for the service. “We wouldn’t want it to be a deficit for us.”

Commissioner Cutsinger characterized the potential of the county’s taking over the Bay Runner operation as “a great idea.”

He did ask Grogg whether the Transit staff will be working on an interlocal agreement with the City of Sarasota in regard to the Bay Runner.

Her staff already has begun drafting such a document, she responded. “We’ve been aggressive in offering information [to city staff] as quickly as we have it,” in an effort to keep the discussions moving.

When Cutsinger asked her about the potential timeline, Grogg responded that she did not want to speak for city leaders, but she felt that the late fall or early winter would make the most sense, as that timeframe is when the initial FDOT grant period for the Bay Runner will end.

“It takes a lot of discussion about details,” she added.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for comments from city staff about the potential of the county’s taking over the Bay Runner, Jan Thornburg, general manager of the city’s Communications Department, provided this statement via email on May 22: “We can confirm that Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota are having very preliminary discussions regarding the Bay Runner, potential cost savings and the feasibility of a mutually beneficial interlocal agreement.”

“The city’s done a very good job with the Bay Runner,” County Administrator Lewis pointed out during the May 15 discussion. “[It is] very successful, from what I understand.”

Lewis also reminded the commissioners that Sarasota County Government is considered the official transit agency for the county.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. File image

When he had talked with staff members of FDOT’s District One office, which serves Sarasota County, Lewis added, they had emphasized to him that the city’s operation of the trolley service “was out of the norm.” The reason that FDOT provided the initial grant, Lewis explained, was to mitigate transportation problems anticipated during the construction of the roundabout at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.

Commissioner Mark Smith, who lives on Siesta Key, did offer one suggestion related to extending the Siesta trolley route to downtown Sarasota. While it “is a wonderfully romantic thought,” he told Grogg, she should consider using Osprey Avenue instead of U.S. 41.

Sometimes, he said, when he is headed back home from the County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota, it takes him 45 minutes to reach Siesta Village from the time he passes the Shell service station at the intersection of Osprey Avenue and Siesta Drive.

Grogg replied that she and her staff already had come to the same conclusion about using Osprey.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Smith also told her. “Obviously, the ridership is there, but we’ve got to make it fun on the trolley, and [cost-] efficient.”

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