County Commission hears details of proposal
By the start of the next tourist season, at the latest, the Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) staff hopes to launch a new shuttle service on U.S. 41 between the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) and downtown Sarasota, using trolleys.
That was just one facet of a discussion between Jane Grogg, the director of SCAT, and the county commissioners during the regular commission meeting on April 25.
Grogg was unable to provide a definitive timeline for the launch of the service, explaining, “We’re looking at trolleys” that would be available, including used vehicles.
“Buying a used one is music to my ears,” Chair Ron Cutsinger told her.
“If you get that [route] going by next Thursday,” Vice Chair Michael Moran joked to Grogg, “that’d be great.” After waiting for laughter to subside, Moran added, “We’re all in. … People are going to be very attracted to this,” he said.
“This is a project that will add tremendous value in our community,” Commissioner Joe Neunder added. “Sarasota’s on the map,” he continued. “We’re anticipating growth in visitation.”
“I think this is a great idea,” said Commissioner Mark Smith, who lives on Siesta Key and was the chair of the Siesta Chamber of Commerce when SCAT launched the trolley service on the island, in March 2016. He said he knows that people will ride a trolley long before they will consider taking a bus.
During her April 25 presentation, Grogg reminded the commissioners that SCAT conducted “a very in-depth, comprehensive study” of its transit services in 2019 and 2020. As a result of the findings, she pointed out, the board members approved an OnDemand service that enabled SCAT to eliminate underused bus routes.
The three primary goals resulting from that study, she added, were to enhance customer service and customer experience, providing value to taxpayers; increasing SCAT’s ridership; and identifying new service models.
During the board members’ budget workshops in March and June 2022, Grogg continued, they talked about the concept of a direct SCAT route between the airport and downtown Sarasota, which is a distance of approximately 4 miles, a county staff memo pointed out.
In researching facets of how such service could be provided, Grogg continued, staff met with the SRQ leadership about the increasing passenger counts the airport is experiencing. In fact, she noted that, in March, SRQ set a new record for one month.
Another focus of that discussion, she said, was what times of day that trolleys would be most in demand for trips to downtown Sarasota. SCAT staff learned that that period stretches from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Therefore, Grogg added, “Our proposal is to focus the shuttle service from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. …”
Additionally, Grogg pointed out, SCAT representatives met with the leaders of the county’s tourism office, Visit Sarasota County, in regard to “enhancing our tourist experience,” including other transportation services that could be provided.
“We noticed that the vehicle chosen is very important,” Grogg said, pointing to the success of the trolleys that operate between Turtle Beach Park and Morton’s Siesta Market in Siesta Key Village. “Tourists seem to be attracted to that type of service.”
The trolleys circulating between SRQ and downtown Sarasota would be branded as “Breeze” vehicles, in keeping with the name used on the Siesta Key trolleys.
SCAT staff also learned from Visit Sarasota County data that more and more tourists are coming to the county by plane, and the tally of those staying in downtown accommodations has risen, Grogg pointed out. Therefore, she said, SCAT staff is planning on a number of limited stops in clusters in the downtown area.
Visit Sarasota County statistics from 2022 showed that 39% of all tourists stayed in downtown Sarasota, while 68% had visited downtown Sarasota during their trips, as shown on a slide Grogg presented to the commissioners.
Further, 39% of all visitors arrived by plane, which marked a 12% uptick from the 2021 figure, the slide said. Additionally, of all those coming by plane, 54% flew into SRQ, which represented a 6% increase, compared to the figure for 2021.
Further factors for consideration
Each trolley would run 20- to 30-minute loops, Grogg told the commissioners. That timing factors in the need to deal with luggage, she added.
To facilitate the type of service that SCAT will provide, Grogg pointed out, SCAT will need two trolleys, each with a ramp to help passengers handle their bags, plus luggage racks and air conditioning. SCAT staff does not want anyone arriving on a hot, rainy day in July and feeling miserable on a trolley headed to downtown Sarasota, she emphasized.
Yet another facet of the route, she said, would be a higher fare than SCAT requires for its other types of service: $2 per person.
Further, Grogg told the commissioners, SCAT staff plans on outfitting each trolley with equipment that will enable riders to track the trolley in real time, as they wait for it. The app, she explained, shows a trolley icon as it makes progress on its route.
Stops would be made not just at hotels, she said, but also at condominium complexes. Staff wants to ensure that riders will know where they will be able to board and disembark from the trolleys, she said.
Following Grogg’s presentation, Commissioner Moran pointed to the necessity of educating visitors about the service, after it has been launched.
“We are working on a total marketing plan,” Grogg replied. SCAT staff has talked with Visit Sarasota County (VSC) leaders about promoting the shuttle service and using VSC’s connections with hoteliers to encourage them to share information about the trolleys with their guests.
Commissioner Moran suggested that some hoteliers would be willing to pay to ensure that the trolley stops at their properties.
“We’re looking at that, too,” County Administrator Jonathan Lewis responded.
Potentially, Grogg said, VSC could set up a meeting for SCAT representatives to talk with hotel general managers about the plans.
Then, after the service has been running for a while, Moran told Grogg, it would be useful to survey riders, to get comments about their experiences.
When Commissioner Neunder asked how visitors would be able to secure rides on the trolley, Grogg explained that the initial plans call for open service, with no reservations. However, she said that reservations could be required if the volume of riders indicates that that would be appropriate.
In response to a question from Chair Cutsinger, Grogg said SCAT staff also planned a meeting with city staff within the next couple of weeks to talk about the best places for the trolleys to stop.
One detail that was in Grogg’s county staff memo in the April 25 agenda packet, which she did not report during her presentation, is the proposal that SCAT would operate the shuttle service on an 18-month trial basis, “with the intent to assess [how it functions] over two tourist seasons …” The resulting comments from passengers, as well as staff’s observations, would guide future adjustments of the operation, the memo said.