Open-air trolley begins its runs on Siesta Key

Siesta Chamber chair still hopeful route can be tweaked to make Siesta Key Breeze more visible in the Village

The Siesta Key Breeze waits to turn from Canal Road onto Ocean Boulevard on the morning of March 20. Rachel Hackney photo

“It’s a big deal,” was the common refrain as representatives of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, Sarasota County, RideRight Transit and members of the public gathered in front of an open-air trolley on the morning of March 20 in Siesta Village.

Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) — with the help of County Commissioners Alan Maio and Mark Moran — officially launched the long-awaited service, which will transport riders between Turtle Beach and Siesta Village. Dubbed “Siesta Key Breeze,” because a Sarasota firm owns the rights to “Siesta Trolley,” the free circulator will run as a pilot program for six months, SCAT Director Rocky Burke pointed out. “We want it to be successful.”

And while the windows will stay down on days like Monday, Burke noted, the vehicles do have air conditioning.

“It’s only taken seven years,” Wendall Jacobsen, general manager of Beach Bazaar and the last president of the Siesta Key Village Association (SKVA), joked with The Sarasota News Leader about the Breeze after the ceremony.

Commissioner Alan Maio (third from left) prepares to cut the ribbon to officially launch the service. 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

Over the weekend, Jacobsen said, Beach Bazaar distributed copies of the schedule to visitors. “We probably gave out a thousand [to] a lot of families, a lot of kids — a lot of people interested in it.” Later, he said, a number of them came back into the shop after standing for about 30 minutes near the intersection of Canal Road and Ocean Boulevard, the only official Village stop for the trolley at this time. When they asked why the vehicle had not come yet, Jacobsen told the News Leader, “We said, ‘Sorry. It doesn’t start till Monday.’”

On Monday, no sooner had the dignitaries climbed aboard for their first ride on the Breeze than one older couple who had watched all the activity asked the News Leader where they find a copy of the schedule. The News Leader suggested they step into the adjacent Beach Bazaar or head to the Chamber office in Davidson Plaza.

The Breeze will operate seven days a week from 8 a.m. to midnight, Burke told the audience during the ceremony, and SCAT wants to do all it can to promote the service.

A SCAT map shows the route of the Siesta Key Breeze. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce Chair Mark Smith had hoped the trolley would be more visible in Siesta Village, he said during a brief interview with the News Leader. “I’m making my suggestions known,” he added. “It is important that people see it come into the Village.”

The more visitors become aware of the trolley, he pointed out, the greater the demand will be.

The News Leader asked Burke about the fact that the Breeze will make just the single stop in front of Siesta Market before heading onto Ocean Boulevard and then west to Beach Road. He explained the reasoning for that has been “the congestion with the people and the cars [in the Village], so we’ve got to factor in the safety issue first and foremost.” Nonetheless, he stressed, this is a pilot program; therefore, he and his staff are still trying to figure out whether they can comply with the need Smith cited for greater visibility.

During his comments as part of the ceremony, Burke pointed out that SCAT staff worked with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to make funding for the Breeze possible. Commissioner Maio — another speaker during the event — noted that Burke and his staff “did some very creative things with FDOT to get this trolley here.”

Details about the service

(From left) Siesta Chamber members Alana Tomasso, Russell Matthes and Wendall Jacobsen prepare to take their first ride on the Breeze. Rachel Hackney photo

The Breeze will replace SCAT Route 10, which was launched in the summer of 2014 to complement Route 11 in serving Siesta Key. Members of the Siesta Chamber and the Siesta Key Village Association (SKVA) — before the Chamber absorbed the latter at the end of 2016 — complained that SCAT did not advertise Route 10 sufficiently, which was one reason it proved unsuccessful. SKVA members also long had emphasized the need for an open-air circulator because they believed it would be in keeping with the island atmosphere and, therefore, far more attractive to visitors than a regular bus.

The goal is for the Breeze to circulate every 20 minutes on Siesta during peak hours (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and every 30 minutes during the remaining operating hours, Kendra Keiderling, SCAT’s marketing, outreach and customer service manager, told the News Leader in late February, after the County Commission approved the contract with the St. Louis, Mo.-based firm RideRight Transit for the service.

SCAT stops where Breeze passengers may embark and disembark will have trolley emblems on them, Keiderling noted, but people also will be able to “flag down” the trolley on Midnight Pass Road, south of the Stickney Point Road intersection. The Breeze will stop at the closest safe place for those riders to board, SCAT staff has said.

Riders will be able to transfer from the trolley to SCAT buses on Routes 11 and 33, Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham pointed out during the ceremony.

During his remarks, Maio joked, “My number of emails will be reduced by 20% because this trolley has now started. You have a very active, intense lobbying group here.”

The Breeze pulls to a stop in front of Siesta Market on Canal Road. Rachel Hackney photo

He added that whenever he attended Siesta Key Association or SKVA meetings — or even when he and his wife, Nancy, were dining in a Siesta restaurant — invariably, someone would come up and say, “‘This has to be the dumbest County Commission in the United States because every other beach community has a trolley and we don’t.”

Maio encouraged the Chamber members and other business owners “to get as many people as possible to ride this for six months” to demonstrate to FDOT the need to keep the Breeze rolling after the pilot program ends.

Cunningham pointed out that the trolley “is a one-of-a-kind in Sarasota as of this moment.”

Before Maio cut the ribbon to launch the Breeze, Burke introduced one other person on the program: TripAdvisor’s destination market manager, Carol Johnson.

Carol Johnson (right) presents TripAdvisor’s No. 1 U.S. Beach Award to Nicole Rissler, deputy director of operations for the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department. Rachel Hackney photo

Johnson presented a certificate to Nicole Rissler, deputy director of operations for the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, officially recognizing Siesta Key Beach as No. 1 in the United States for 2017, based on reviews “of millions of travelers around the world.”

Whoops and hollers ensued.

For more details about the Breeze, visit the county website or call the Sarasota County Contact Center at 861-5000.