Free open-air trolley service to begin in about a month between downtown Sarasota and Lido Key

City commissioners approve $4.4-million contract with company that operates Siesta Key trolley

This is the logo for the new trolley service. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

It took about 90 minutes of discussion on Nov. 1, but the Sarasota City Commission finally voted 4-1 to approve an approximately $4.4-million, three-year contract with CPR Medical Transport LLC of Washington, D.C., to operate a free, open-air trolley that will circulate between downtown Sarasota and Lido Key.

“It’s going to be a great attraction for the city,” Mayor Hagen Brody said of what city staff has christened the Bay Runner. Moreover, he added, “It will inherently affect, in a positive way, our traffic and our congestion.”

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the “No” vote after voicing concerns about the expense. “I do think it could be successful,” she said. However, she continued, she would have preferred a pilot project first, so city staff could gather data about ridership; then, if the figures indicated strong support for the program, the type of plans being considered that night could be pursued.

The Bay Runner is to begin service within 30 days of the execution of the contract, Mark Lyons, general manager of the city’s Parking Division, told the board members during their regular meeting this week. The trolley will have a total of 13 east- and westbound stops, he noted, though one of those — at Golden Gate Point and Sunset Drive — will not be used until after the completion of the roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.

The Bay Runner will operate from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. with a 30-minute “headway,” meaning the maximum amount of time a rider should have to wait for it, he continued.

Then, Lyons said, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., the headway will be reduced to 20 minutes. Finally, between 8 p.m. and midnight, the headway will go back to 30 minutes.

One important feature that will help the trolley remain on schedule, Lyons explained, will be a signal prioritization system. If the Bay Runner is approaching a red traffic light, he said the driver can use that system to change the light to green.

This graphic provides details about the trolley’s hours of operation. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

As planned, the trolley route will begin at the intersection of School Avenue and Main Street in Sarasota, which will provide a connection to users of the North Extension of The Legacy Trail, after that project has been completed — early in 2022, county staff anticipates.

When Mayor Brody asked whether bicyclists would be able to put their bikes on the trolley for transport, too, Nathan Reid, CPR Medical’s general manager, assured him that the vehicles would be equipped with bicycle racks.

As the trolley heads west, Lyons continued, it will stop at Fletcher Avenue and Main Street and then in front of the movie theaters on Main Street. The Main and Osprey Avenue intersection will be next, he added, calling that a “large sort of center,” with offices and restaurants nearby.

This graphic shows the trolley route along Main Street. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Another primary area of city activity, Lyons noted, is the intersection of Main and Lemon Avenue, which also will be a stop. The trolley will proceed with stops at Palm Avenue and Main and then onto the John Ringling Causeway Bridge. It will travel around St. Armands Circle and then head to Ben Franklin Drive, providing access to the Lido Key Pavilion and South Lido Beach, before heading back east, toward the city, he said.

This map shows the route on St. Armands and Lido keys. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The Bay Runner’s riders also will be able to utilize the Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) bus shelters, Lyons noted.

The goal is to provide “a useful and desirable experience for the city and the riders,” he said.

During the discussion, Reid talked of the company’s experience providing the Siesta Key Breeze trolley service, which runs between Turtle Beach Park and Morton’s Siesta Market on the barrier island seven days a week. CPR Medical won the Sarasota County contract for that service in 2018.

Not only does the Breeze serve tourists, Reid pointed out, but many residents use it, as well.

Brody noted that he has heard much about the popularity of the trolley on Siesta.

Funding debated

Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo did join Commissioner Ahearn-Koch in expressing reservations about the expense, which also will cover the costs of a paratransit system. However, Lyons and representatives of CPR Medical made it clear that the schedule could be adjusted — including the days of week of service — if ridership figures make clear that that is necessary.

“We’re flexible; we’re nimble,” Reid of CPR Medical said.

Ahearn-Koch emphasized that the city’s portion of the money — $782,709 for each of the three years — will come out of its Economic Development Fund. As Kelly Strickland, the city’s finance director explained, that account comprises all of the Local Business Tax revenue that the city collects, and the amount going to the trolley and paratransit initiative in the second and third years of the contract is expected to leave no money for any other projects.

This is the funding breakdown for the Bay Runner and paratransit operations. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In response to a question from Ahearn-Koch, Strickland noted that money from the Economic Development Fund this fiscal year also is going toward a public art installation ($150,000); Main Street streetscape improvements ($600,000); and a Boulevard of the Arts streetscape initiative ($75,000), among other projects.

In response to another question, Strickland reminded the board members that the City Charter allows them to raise the Local Business Tax by 5% every two years. However, they have agreed most recently not to increase it, she noted. The tax is expected to bring in about $900,000 this year, Strickland said. The total budget for expenditures out of the fund for this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, is $2.7 million, she added.

Ahearn-Koch also pointed to the fact that leaders of the Business Improvement District (BID) on St. Armands Circle and the Downtown Improvement District in downtown Sarasota are skeptical that the trolley will boost economic development in the city. As a result, they were willing to approve only $50,000 each for the first year of the trolley service, Ahearn-Koch stressed.

The final portion of the funding for the Bay Runner will come from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) — $530,082 for each of the three years.

These are details about the paratransit service. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In response to another question, Strickland said that any shortfall in funding for the trolley/paratransit service in the second and third years of the contract would have to be made up out of the city’s General Fund. That account holds all of the property tax revenue the city receives each year, plus revenue from other sources, including funds the state shares with municipalities. The General Fund pays for operations of city departments — including the Sarasota Police Department — that do not generate any revenue on their own.

Commissioner Liz Alpert stressed that none of the board members has any idea, at this time, how the trolley service will work. She and Mayor Brody talked of their optimism that it will end up leading to more patronage of businesses in the city and on St. Armands Circle.

“I’m going to support this,” Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie said, “because I think, you know, it is going to help mitigate traffic a little bit.”

However, Battie did ask Lyons, “Can we charge a fee?” — perhaps $1 per rider.

Lyons responded that such a change in the plans at this point would necessitate “a whole other review process by FDOT,” which could lead to the loss of the department’s funding support.

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