Even after height of tourist season, Bay Runner trolley in Sarasota transporting more than 10,000 riders a month

Bay Runner carried 2,253 people over three-day July Fourth holiday period

Like its counterpart on Siesta Key, the City of Sarasota’s free, Bay Runner open-air trolley has demonstrated its popularity through its ridership figures, city data show.

On March 2, the Bay Runner began its daily trips between downtown Sarasota and St. Armands and Lido keys. It can carry a total of 28 persons.

Since that launch, the following are the monthly passenger totals, which city Senior Communications Manager Jan Thornburg provided to The Sarasota News Leader, at its request:

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

Typically, as indicated by the monthly Tourist Development Tax — or, “bed tax” — reports released by Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates, March and April are the biggest months for tourism in the county.

However, as city commissioners and city staff point out, residents readily are joining visitors on the Bay Runner — just as the Siesta Key Breeze is a popular method of transportation for the residents of Siesta Key.

The Bay Runner marked a major milestone over the July Fourth holiday weekend, as Mark Lyons, manager of the City of Sarasota’s Parking Division, noted in a July 5 email to City Manager Marlon Brown.

On Saturday, July 2, Lyons wrote, “[T]he Bay Runner carried … 850 passengers,” which was a new record. “Total for Sat/Sun/Mon was 2253; 3 days,” Lyons added.

CPR Medical Transport LLC of Washington, D.C., won the contract in November 2021 to operate the Bay Runner; the same company also handles the Siesta Key Breeze.

In biweekly updates on various Planning Department initiatives and staff work, Steve Cover, director of that department, has noted the ongoing high demand for the trolley in July, the News Leader has found.

In the latest report that the News Leader read — dated July 15 — Cover wrote, “The ridership numbers continue to be strong.”

The Bay Runner operates seven days a week from 8 a.m. to midnight, running every 20 to 30 minutes, a city graphic points out. Its easternmost stop is the intersection of Main Street and School Avenue. Its westernmost passenger pickup/drop-off location is Ted Sperling Park on south Lido Key Beach.

During the City Commission’s budget workshops this week, city Finance Director Kelly Strickland noted that $782,709 of the city’s economic development revenue for the 2023 fiscal year will be going toward the trolley’s operations. The new fiscal year will begin on Oct. 1.

The Economic Development Fund comprises the revenue the city receives from its Local Business Tax. The total of that revenue anticipated in the 2023 fiscal year, Strickland noted in a slide, is $883,672. Thus, about 88% of the proceeds will be dedicated to keeping the Bay Runner on the road.

Strickland reminded the commissioners that both the Downtown Improvement District and the St. Armands Business Improvement District have committed to paying $50,000 for each of three years to support the trolley.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is picking up more than $500,000 of the expense for each of those three years, as city staff has pointed out.

An FDOT document included in the City Commission’s backup agenda materials for its regular meeting on July 5 show that the grant for the 2023 fiscal year will be $530,082 — the same amount that FDOT gave the city this fiscal year and the same figure that FDOT proposes to dedicate to the trolley’s operations in the 2024 fiscal year.

Therefore, the total amount of money that the city will receive from FDOT to support the trolley over its initial three years of operations will be $1,590,246, July 5 City Commission meeting materials said.

In approving their Consent Agenda No. 1 of routine business items that day, the commissioners unanimously authorized Mayor Erik Arroyo and City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs to execute the second-year amendment to the city’s funding agreement with FDOT.

The relevant agenda request form explained that the City Commission had directed staff “to plan the trolley operation with the intention of facilitating easier movement between [Lido Key] and [the] mainland” during the time it took a contractor hired by FDOT to complete the roundabout under construction at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.

The objectives for the Bay Runner, the memo continued, were to relieve traffic congestion on State Road 789 while the roundabout was underway; provide a transit option for accessibility to shopping on St. Armands Circle and in downtown Sarasota, as well as recreational activities and employee opportunities; and, in general “support the City’s Transportation Vision for a safe and active community with diverse transportation choices.”

On a related matter, the city’s July 15 newsletter explained that FDOT crews had been restriping lanes on the John Ringling Causeway Bridge to create a “Shared Bus Bike Shoulder, which ultimately will become a bus lane and bike lane by the summer of 2024.

“The new bus shoulder is expected to be completed by August,” the newsletter added. Then, the Bay Runner will be allowed to use it “at the driver’s discretion when traffic is [traveling] 15 mph or slower. Shuttle drivers will undergo training to understand how to enter and exit the lanes and how to safely co-exist with e-scooters and bicycles, which will be permitted on the bus shoulder as well,” the newsletter pointed out.

“The City initiated the concept of a bridge express bus lane in 2018 to help with connectivity between downtown and the barrier islands,” the newsletter explained. Noting the popularity of the Bay Runner, the newsletter said the dedicated lane will expedite riders’ trips “over beautiful Sarasota Bay for their next stop to dine, shop or relax in our beautiful city.”