Extension of Siesta Key trolley route to be focus of future County Commission discussion

Right of way issues will have to be addressed, county administrator says

Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith has won agreement from his board colleagues for an upcoming discussion about a pilot program involving the extension of the Siesta Key trolley route to the northernmost part of Siesta Village.

During the commission’s regular meeting on March 7, Smith reminded the other board members that, in May 2022, they approved the request of residents of the Whispering Sands condominium complex, which is just west of the northernmost part of Siesta Village, for the installation of four-way stop signs on Ocean Boulevard at the intersections of Avenida Milano and Whispering Sands Drive.

One major goal of that action was to slow down traffic that had been speeding into Siesta Village from the north, as noted at the time.

The stop signs have been working well, Smith said. However, a secondary factor in their installation, he continued, was to make it possible for the Siesta Key Breeze trolley to be able to proceed farther into the Village.

Since its launch in March 2017, the trolley has been circulating between Turtle Beach Park, on the southern part of the Key, and Morton’s Siesta Market on Canal Road. The commissioners in July 2022 celebrated the millionth passenger on the Breeze, a statistic that was recorded in June 2022.

An annual report that the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce provided recently to members of the Siesta Key Condominium Council put the 2022 Breeze ridership total at 313,282.

A detailed, monthly report on the Breeze’s ridership since its launch — which Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) staff provided to The Sarasota News Leader this week, at the News Leader‘s request — shows demand for the trolley remained high in the first two months of this year. The number of passengers in January was 31,188; in February, 34,837.

In its first full month of operation — April 2018 — the Breeze carried 18,190 riders, the SCAT data show. In April 2022, the figure was 37,012. The highest monthly figure the News Leader found was for March 2019 — a year before the first COVID-19 pandemic cases were identified in March 2020. That total was 62,699.

Leaders of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce long have sought an extension of the trolley’s route, given its success in transporting both residents and visitors and, thus, keeping personal vehicles off the road.

As Chair-Elect of the Siesta Chamber at the time, Smith explained to The Sarasota News Leader last year that the trolley could travel from Canal Road to Calle Minorga — which runs parallel to Ocean Boulevard — and then turn onto Avenida Milano.

At the commissioners’ request last year, Smith added during the March 7 meeting, SCAT staff, under whose aegis the trolley operates, provided them a report on the potential extension of the trolley route. That report resulted in the offer of a pilot program to determine whether the longer route would work, Smith said.

He was seeking his colleagues’ support on March 7, he continued, to allow SCAT to launch that pilot program.

His understanding, Smith said, is that the route will need some right of way modifications.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis added, “There are some complicating factors.” Boulders and large rocks are in one section of right of way, he said, noting that he assumes their placement in that area was to keep people from parking along the right of way.

A photo with the SCAT report showed a line of rocks on the east side of Calle Minorga.

Lewis then told the commissioners he could talk to Jane Grogg, director of SCAT, to determine how long she believes the pilot program would need to operate.

When Commissioner Michael Moran asked about the potential of the board members discussing the issue in more detail, Lewis responded that he first would provide copies of the June 2022 report to all of the commissioners again; then, staff could schedule the discussion at a future meeting.

Along with Smith, Commissioner Joe Neunder is in his first term on the board, having been elected — like Smith — in November 2022.

“OK,” Moran replied.

“Good,” Chair Ron Cutsinger said.

The SCAT report

The June 2022 SCAT report explained that, in determining the feasibility of extending the Breeze’s route, “[S]taff considered several factors including impacts to service frequency, possible safety issues, impacts to parking and infrastructure needs.”

The extension, the report continued, would add just over a quarter-of-a-mile to the trolley’s route, one way. “This additional distance would slightly increase trip time,” the report noted. However, that would have “minimal impact” on the service frequency.

The current route, the report pointed out, has adequate rights of way to accommodate the transit vehicles without on-street parking issues posing potential conflicts. Extending the route would put the trolleys on Avenida Madera, Calle Minorga and Avenida Milano, each of which has on-street parking, “which may lead to safety issues,” the report added.
For example the report said, individuals backing out of parking spaces into the rights of way potentially could collide with the Breeze.

Further, the report noted the boulders sitting in the Calle Minorga right of way; SCAT staff had observed cars parked in the travel lane next to those boulders during tourist season. That situation, the report said, “would drastically limit the trolley’s ability to navigate the street.”

The report pointed out that “No Parking” signs could be placed on that stretch of road. Yet, the report added, “[P]arking enforcement is difficult in Siesta Key Village to ensure that vehicles are leaving adequate space in the right-of-way for two-way vehicle travel.”

Further, the report explained, parallel parking exists on the north side of Avenida Milano, near Ocean Boulevard, near the new four-way stop sign. “An appropriate trolley stop would be needed on the extension,” the report said, but “the configuration of the block is not conducive to passengers boarding and alighting.”

To add a new stop, the report continued, staff also “would need to consider” erecting appropriate signage for potential passengers, adjusting the on-street parking spaces, creating a connection to the sidewalk and installing a concrete pad for accommodations to riders in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Then the report noted that if it were the commission’s direction to work on extending the route, staff would devise a pilot program “to test the conditions and potential constraints along the route.”

Finally, the report said, If the trolley’s route were to be extended north, SCAT staff wanted to keep the layover point in front of Morton’s Siesta Market.