Siesta Key Breeze carries its millionth customer

County Commission marks the occasion, and chair talks about potential for expanding route in the future

The Siesta Key Breeze travels its regular route on the barrier island. Photo from a video, courtesy of Sarasota County

For close to a decade, Siesta Key business leaders pleaded with Sarasota County Government leaders to begin a trolley service on the barrier island, pointing to the success of such ventures in other locations.

No matter their predictions of a positive public reception of the idea, county staff declined to proceed with any planning.

Finally, in March 2017, as the spring break tourist season was underway on the Key, Commissioners Alan Maio and Michael Moran joined members of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce in the launch of the Siesta Key Breeze, an open-air trolley that would circulate between Turtle Beach Park, near the southern terminus of the island, and Siesta Village.

Kendra Keiderling, then the marketing, outreach and customer service manager for Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) — under whose auspices the trolley would operate — explained to The Sarasota News Leader that she had come up with the name by thinking about the breeze wafting through the windows as passengers sat back, relaxed and enjoyed not having to navigate their own vehicles in the traffic.

On March 20, 2017, Commissioner Alan Maio (third from left) prepares to cut the ribbon to officially launch the Siesta Key Breeze trolley service on the island. With him are (from left) Mark Smith, who then was the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce chair, along with County Commissioner Mike Moran, then-SCAT Director Rocky Burke and Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham. Smith has been one of the staunchest advocates for the trolley. Most recently, he has worked with county leaders about extending its route on the island. File photo

The longer the trolley was in service, the higher the passenger count seemed to grow — especially at the height of tourist season. Tens of thousands of passengers climbed aboard.

Although the service was suspended for several months in early 2020, out of caution in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, riders readily took their seats once again on the Breeze when the route resumed.

On July 12, as he was making announcements at the beginning of a regular County Commission meeting, Chair Maio had happy news to share. The Siesta Key Breeze, he said, had marked “a major milestone” in June. It had carried its millionth passenger.

“I think it was an imaginative way to cut down on some of the traffic on the Key,” Maio continued. Like Siesta architect Mark Smith — who has served as a leader of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce for decades — Maio added that he believes every two passengers on the trolley represent one less car on Siesta roads.

Therefore, Maio said, he believes the Breeze has kept about 500,000 vehicles from circulating on the island.

These are the statistics for the Siesta Key Breeze through June 2021. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Reaching 1million riders is evidence of the trolley’s success,” said SCAT Director Jane Grogg in a news release that the county issued. “Our goal is to continually provide innovative solutions for travel, and we’re looking forward to serving another million riders on the trolley,” she added.

Over the past six months, the release pointed out, “the Siesta Key Breeze Trolley route has seen the highest ridership of all SCAT services.”

Grogg reported on that during a presentation this spring to the county commissioners.

After the Breeze hit the road in March 2017, it did not take long for it to celebrate its 250,000th rider. That took place on April 9, 2018.

The vehicles work in conjunction with the SCAT bus routes and the county’s OnDemand service, “offering many options to explore one of Florida’s most popular tourist destinations,” the release noted.

The county commissioners pose in front of a trolley to mark the milestone achieved in June. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, the release said, the trolley runs from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day of the year. Unlike the SCAT buses, it does not get parked on major holidays.

As part of the celebration of the Breeze’s milestone, all five county commissioners posed for a photo in front of a trolley brought last week to the County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota. Gold balloons in the background underscored the reason for that celebration.

In a video that county staff also released last week, Maio reprised a remark he has made on multiple occasions over the past five years: “We weren’t sure how many riders we were going to have …”

In fact, he has acknowledged his worries that the trolley might not end up being the success that Siesta Key leaders expected.

As he also has noted, his worries were for nought.

A longer route, perhaps, in the future

Further, Maio talked in the county video about the potential expansion of the trolley’s route in the future.

During a recent commission meeting, he indicated that county staff would try again to determine, for example, whether sufficient parking spaces could be secured at shopping centers off-island to allow people to leave their vehicles and then hop on the trolley to visit destinations on Siesta Key.

Maio has lamented the fact that county staff had no success when it approached shopping center owners and managers several years ago in an effort to find such spaces.

This is a flyer about the Siesta Key Breeze; it was featured in the August 2020 newsletter of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce. The trolley’s hours later were modified so it operates until 10 p.m. every day. Image courtesy of the Siesta Chamber

In the meantime, this spring, the commissioners approved the installation of new multi-way stop signs on the north end of Siesta Village — at the Ocean Boulevard intersections of Whispering Sands Drive and Avenida Milano — with the ultimate goal of allowing the trolley to come further north into the Village and then be able to get back onto Ocean Boulevard to head south again to Turtle Beach Park.

Additionally, during the commission’s budget workshops in June, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis referenced a “Siesta Key people mover study” as one of the ongoing innovative efforts of staff this fiscal year.

In response to a News Leader question about what that initiative entails, county staff said that proposals for reducing traffic congestion on the barrier island that were part of a Tampa consultant’s report released in 2020 were under review. The study was conducted by the firm ADEAS-Q.

Among the recommendations in that report was the expansion of the Siesta Key Breeze service, as well as determining the feasibility of free park-and-ride options. The sites that report mentioned in regard to the latter idea were Gulf Gate Mall; Phillippi Estate Park, located at 5500 S. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota; and the area near the intersection of Stickney Point Road and Avenue D.

People can download the Siesta Key Breeze app in the Apple or Google Play stores. It is linked to transponders in the vehicles, so members of the public can track how long they will have to wait for the trolley to arrive at a particular stop.

To learn more about the Siesta Key Breeze and to find other SCAT information, call 311 or visit scgov.net.

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