Proposed expansion of Siesta trolley route to downtown Sarasota might be nixed, county commissioners indicate during June 19 budget workshop discussion

With direction to county administrative staff to lower millage rate for 2025 fiscal year, commissioners raise concerns about expense of new service

This graphic shows the conceptual route of the Siesta Islander trolley to downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During a May 15 presentation to the Sarasota County Commission, Jane Grogg, director of the county’s Transit Department, broached the idea of extending the Siesta Key trolley route to downtown Sarasota.

At the time, she explained that the county’s Breeze OnDemand ride-sharing service for the Siesta Key Zone had not proven to be as successful as she and her staff had anticipated. The average cost per trip, according to a slide she showed the board members that day, was $39.43, based on 6,893 trips in 2023.

Conversely, Grogg pointed out, the free Siesta Key trolley — which was launched in March 2017 — has proven so successful that the service marked its 2-millionth rider in early May. I(t has been rebranded the Route 77 Siesta Islander.)

The slide also noted that the cost per passenger on the trolley was $3.77 in 2023, based on 314,939 trips recorded.

Grogg cited data collected in 2022 by Visit Sarasota County, the county’s tourism office, showing that people on Siesta Key had expressed a strong interest in visits to downtown Sarasota, while persons in downtown Sarasota also had a keen desire to travel to Siesta Key.

As a result, on May 15, Grogg proposed an expanded Siesta Islander route that would circulate from Turtle Beach Park on the south end of Siesta to downtown Sarasota. At the same time, the Transit staff would cease the OnDemand service on the barrier island and transfer the funding for it to other OnDemand zones where riders have proven plentiful.

As a result of that discussion, both Commissioner Mark Smith — a longtime Siesta resident — and Commissioner Ron Cutsinger of Englewood voiced support for Grogg’s proposal.

Then came another discussion on June 19, as Grogg was presenting the Transit Department’s proposed budget for the 2025 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1.

Transit Director Jane Grogg addresses the commissioners on June 19. News Leader image

To help her and her staff in planning for the next fiscal year, she asked the board members to vote on the proposed trolley expansion plan. Commissioner Smith made the motion to direct staff to proceed with the initiative, and Cutsinger seconded it.

Chair Michael Moran ended up casting the tie-breaking vote, in support of the concept, but with further discussion expected, he indicated.

Commissioners Neil Rainford and Joe Neunder cast the “No” votes.

Referencing Grogg’s recommended motion before calling for the vote, Moran asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, “If this motion passes, what are you hearing as far as a budget concern [for the 2025 fiscal year]?”

Lewis replied that he was seeking direction on the proposals the commissioners wanted to be incorporated into the new budget, as they were conducting their annual in-depth discussions with county department directors and the county’s constitutional officers, such as the sheriff and the supervisor of elections.

Further, Lewis pointed to comments that Grogg had made in regard to staff’s efforts to win a grant from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to help pay for the extension of the Siesta trolley service to downtown Sarasota.

“Noting the [estimated $410,000 cost of the full route],” Smith asked Grogg, “do you believe there’s a good chance we’re going to get some [FDOT] participation [in covering it]?”

“I appreciate that FDOT has been gracious to extend their application window for us,” she replied. “To me,” she continued, “that indicated a willingness to entertain our application.”

In response to another question from Smith, Grogg acknowledged that if FDOT were willing to provide funding support for that expanded service for three years, the new route essentially would be a pilot program for that period.

“It remains to be seen,” Grogg added, “but I think, from a transit industry perspective, three years is also a good amount of time to see if that ridership is built.”

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. File image

County Administrator Lewis also told Moran that nothing would prevent the commissioners from removing the budget item at a later date, “which I think you were getting at.”

Finally, during the vote on the motion, Moran said, “I’m OK with [the authorization for the expanded service] moving forward,” but he indicated that other discussions during the rest of the budget workshops that week could affect the decision.

This reporter heard nothing later during those workshops to counter that June 19 vote. Grogg did tell the commissioners that day that a related discussion would be on their agenda for their regular meeting on July 9.

Free, at first, if the service is implemented

During her remarks as part of her department’s budget presentation, Grogg reminded the commissioners on June 19 that the proposal calls for the Siesta Islander to stop in downtown Sarasota, to stop in the area of the Orange Avenue/Osprey Avenue neighborhoods, and to stop at what used to be called the Southgate Mall and is now designated the Siesta Mall Transfer Station.

The estimated travel time from downtown Sarasota to Siesta Key Village is 30 minutes.

During the May 15 discussion, Commissioner Smith proposed that the trolley travel use Osprey Avenue to reach downtown, because of the congestion on U.S. 41. Grogg assured him then that staff had settled on the same idea.

Then, on June 19, Smith asked her whether the trolly rides would remain free.

“Our thought is to initially start at no charge,” Grogg told him, “and then assess as we go,” based on the number of riders and the operational expense.

Looking at his fellow board members, Smith said, “If it would help the traffic getting off and on Siesta Key, I’m all for it.”

When Commissioner Cutsinger sought reassurance that Grogg and her staff still were proposing a cessation of the OnDemand service for Siesta Key, if the trolley route were extended, Grogg responded affirmatively. The Siesta OnDemand service “would be suspended,” she said, and its hours of operation would be allocated to other zones in the county that are seeing increasing numbers of riders.

This graphic compares the average cost of the county’s four OnDemand zones and the expense per passenger of the Siesta trolley service. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Then Commissioner Rainford brought up his recommendation — expressed during both the March and May commission budget workshops — that the board members reduce the county’s millage rate for the 2025 fiscal year. He had suggested the rate be set at 3.31 mills, while county staff last week had included in its budget presentation a slide indicating a rate of 3.35 mills.

One mill represents $1 of every $1,000 of the value of a piece of property.

The commissioners last week ended up voting to direct County Administrator Lewis to plan on county department budget reductions to achieve a 3.30 millage rate for the 2025 fiscal year.

Including more money in the FY 2025 budget for the Siesta trolley expansion, Rainford pointed out during the June 19 Transit discussion, “kind of goes in the other direction,” though he added, “not that I’m necessarily opposed [to the Transit request for authorization of the pilot program].”

Still, Rainford continued, if FDOT awarded the county a grant to support the new service over three years, the county would be facing the prospect of paying the full expense after the grant term ended.

“We can reassess how successful it is,” Grogg told him, including the potential to start charging a fee for riders and seeking other revenue sources, such as — perhaps, she said — funds raised by the 6% Tourist Development Tax charged on the rentals of accommodations for six months or less time in the county. (That is also known as the “bed tax.” Its uses are governed by a county ordinance, with state law providing guidance on those uses.)

Later, in response to a question that Cutsinger posed, Grogg said that FDOT would like to have the county application for the grant “by July.” She added that if the state department ended up approving the county request, the initial funds would be allocated to the county for the state’s fiscal year beginning on July 1, 2025.

This is a view of a Siesta trolley with the new branding Route 77. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

When Rainford asked if that meant the county would have to cover the entire cost of the expansion of the Siesta trolley service for its first year of operation, Grogg told him that was correct.

Rainford also inquired of Grogg about the amount that the Transit Department is charging riders for the trolley service that county staff launched in early February between downtown Sarasota and the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport(SRQ). (That is called the 76 Flyer.)

She told him that the fare is $2.

Yet, in her last update to the board on that service, Rainford continued, data showed that ridership was proving lower than anticipated.

“Right,” she responded. “We are working on marketing efforts to try and build that [passenger count],” she added. Staff also has been talking with Visit Sarasota County representatives, airport staff and managers of the hotels where the trolleys stop in downtown Sarasota about marketing efforts, Grogg told Rainford.

(The 76 flyer stops approximately every 30 minutes at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota, The Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, Embassy Suites by Hilton Sarasota, Aloft Sarasota, Art Ovation Hotel, voco Sarasota and The Sarasota Modern.)

Commissioner Joe Neunder makes a point during the Jan. 30 County Commission meeting. File image

When Commissioner Neunder asked her whether he remembered correctly that she had provided data showing the expense of the 76 Flyer to be “roughly $36 per passenger,” she replied that that was correct. It is based on the number of riders and the county’s overall costs, she added. The more riders, the lower the expense per passenger, Grogg said.

Following the May 15 discussion, in response to a board request, Grogg wrote in a May 28 email to the commissioners that the cost per passenger on the 76 Flyer is $34.38.

On June 19, Neunder noted that the service still is new. He encouraged Grogg to work with the hoteliers and Visit Sarasota County on the marketing. Moreover, he indicated that she and her staff could talk with the manager of the hotels to determine whether they would be willing to help pay part of the expense of the service.

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