Siesta Key open-air trolley service to begin on March 20

Island business owners applaud county staff’s efforts to launch the type of service they long have sought

The trolleys used on Siesta Key are expected to resemble this one. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Perhaps no one on Siesta Key has been a more ardent supporter of an open-air trolley for visitors than Russell Matthes, co-owner of the Daiquiri Deck restaurants. On Feb. 28, shortly after the Sarasota County Commission approved a pilot program for such a service, Matthes told The Sarasota News Leader, “We’re definitely excited about it.”

Given that the plans call for launching the free Siesta Key Breeze on March 20 — at the height of tourist season — “Ridership should be plentiful,” he added. “The key now is to get the word out.”

“And talk about impeccable timing!” Kendra Keiderling, marketing, outreach and customer service manager for Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT), told the News Leader in a separate Feb. 28 interview.

With TripAdvisor last week having named Siesta Public Beach No. 1 in the United States and No. 5 in the world, Keiderling was as excited as Matthes. Staff has been working for more than two years to reach this point, she noted in an email. In a telephone interview, she acknowledged the time it took to prepare the bid proposal, advertise it and then allow the county’s Procurement Department to handle the results. “It’s a process through government,” she said. “We have had to be so creative.”

The bid was advertised on Nov. 21, 2016; the original deadline was Dec. 28, 2016, but that was extended to Jan. 4.

Russell Matthes (left) and Wendall Jacobsen, the last president of the Siesta Key Village Association and the general manager of Beach Bazaar, prepare for the start of a meeting in 2016. Rachel Hackney photo

With its approval of its Feb. 28 Consent Agenda of routine business items, the County Commission formally awarded a $592,191.60 contract to Ride Right Transit LLC of Lake St. Louis, Mo., to operate the open-air service on SCAT’s Route 10 — which serves Siesta Key — for a six-month period. A memo provided to the board explains that that route began in July 2014 with funding through a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) grant, which will expire in August, and county funding. FDOT and the county each will cover 50% of the cost, the memo explains.

Mark Smith, chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, told the News Leader on Feb. 28 that “what we want to emphasize to all our residents and visitors is to please use the trolley.” The service will be an excellent means of getting vehicles off the street, he pointed out. The Chamber’s staff plans to work with SCAT personnel in marketing the trolley, he added.

All comments and suggestions will be welcome, Smith said. The goal is to “make it a permanent fixture on Siesta Key.”

As for the name of the new service: Keiderling told the News Leader that because a business already uses “Siesta Key Trolley,” staff had to come up with a different moniker. “So I was brainstorming with one of my co-workers,” she continued, talking about the fact that riders would be in the open air, with the breeze blowing their hair. That was it, she realized: Siesta Key Breeze.

More details about the service

A map provided in the bid package shows the planned route of the Siesta Key trolley. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A county news release explains that the trolley service will start at Turtle Beach, proceed north to Siesta Village, turn on Calle De La Siesta (across from the Beach Access No. 7) and then onto Canal Road, head southbound through the Village and return to Turtle Beach.

The bid that was advertised called for the vehicles to carry a minimum of 20 passengers and to have roll-down, clear vinyl enclosures “in the event of bad weather.”

The contract the commission approved on Feb. 28 includes the option for renewing the service for an extra six months and, thereafter, on a month-to-month basis for up to another six months.

FDOT did send a letter of concurrence to allow the remainder of the grant funds used for Route 10 to be transferred to the trolley pilot program, the county staff memo explained to the County Commission.

After the trolley service commences, Route 10 will be eliminated, the county news release noted.

Pressing their points

Kendra Keiderling shows Siesta Key Village Association members the ‘wraps’ for buses that began serving the island in 2014. File photo

Because of “consistently low ridership,” the Feb. 28 county staff memo explained, SCAT implemented changes to Route 10 in November 2015, but the bus service still exhibited “poor performance for several reasons.” For example, the memo continued, it duplicated part of Route 11, which already operated on the island. However, the memo also reported, “[T]he type of vehicle used was not desired by the passengers residing [in] and visiting the area.”

“We’re really excited that it’s actually a trolley,” Matthes told the News Leader on Feb. 28. “It’s definitely more rider-friendly,” he added, and more inviting to visitors. “We think that alone will stimulate ridership.”

For more than a decade, Siesta Key business owners — especially the leadership of the Siesta Key Village Association (SKVA) and the Chamber — lobbied county staff and the commissioners for a true trolley: an open-air vehicle reflective of an island atmosphere. Prior to the SKVA’s absorption into the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce at the end of 2016, Matthes reported regularly on progress he and other business owners were making in talks with SCAT staff. Former County Administrator Jim Ley assisted with that process, including accompanying Matthes to talk in-depth with the CEO of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which operates about 25 trolleys in Pinellas County.

In his last update for SKVA members — on Oct. 4, 2016 — Matthes said SCAT staff hoped the pilot program would begin on Dec. 1, 2016 with three trolleys.

He also pointed out that the decision was made to include Turtle Beach in the route. The other big factor, he indicated, would be riders’ ability to flag down the trolley. Keiderling confirmed for the News Leader on Feb. 28 that the latter feature will be part of the program. SCAT has plenty of stops on Beach Road, she said, but along Midnight Pass Road to Turtle Beach, “People [will] just wave” to stop the trolley. It will pick them up at the closest safe location, a county news release says.

Trolley emblems will be added to SCAT signs at regular trolley stops on Siesta Key. Image courtesy Sarasota County

An emblem of a trolley will be added to each SCAT stop where riders may embark or debark from the trolley on Beach Road, the news release notes.

The service — Keiderling stressed that it will be free — will operate seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., three trolleys will make regular stops about every 20 minutes between the Beach Club in Siesta Village and Turtle Beach, she said. The rest of the non-peak time, she added, the goal is 30 minutes between regular stops.

Moreover, Keiderling pointed out, the service will be provided on Memorial Day and Independence Day.

As for the launch: Details have yet to be worked out, she said, but SCAT is planning a ribbon-cutting ceremony with members of the County Commission. “We’ll have a big party,” she added. “We want it to be a huge launch. I don’t want one person to say they don’t know about [the service]. … Communication is key!”

SKVA members have talked openly and in private about their feelings that SCAT staff did not undertake sufficient marketing to make the public — especially tourists — aware of Route 10 when it was begun. Nonetheless, Matthes and others have emphasized that the real key to ridership is making a trolley system fun for visitors, which is why they long have advocated the open-air vehicle approach.

On Feb. 28, Matthes pointed out that the island should have plenty of potential riders all through August, given the number of families who visit Siesta Key in the summer months. He also stressed the need to make sure management at the island’s condominium complexes and visitor rental businesses help get out the word.

“It’s a long time coming, and we appreciate the county’s efforts on this,” Matthes said.

Matthes and Keiderling both told the News Leader that Siesta leaders and SCAT staff have a meeting planned for March 3 to discuss details of the kickoff and other facets of the program.