By Roger Drouin
From March 20 to April 12, for the first 24 days of service, there were 39,185 passengers who hopped on the trolley, according to Kendra Keiderling, Marketing and Customer Service Supervisor at Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT).
The trolley service, which operates from 8 a.m. to Midnight daily, is the first to be funded and run by Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT), Keiderling confirmed.
On February 28, the county formally awarded a contract to Ride Right Transit LLC., of Lake St. Louis, Mo. to operate the trolley service on the Key for a six-month period. The trolley service, called “Siesta Key Breeze,” began March 20, and the service replaces SCAT’s Route 10 bus service on the Key. The contract the County Commission approved in February includes the option for renewing the service, and the county is currently seeking funding to continue the trolley operation after August.
As riders hop on the trolley and transportation officials tweak details, such as peak hours of operation, Siesta Sand checked in with Keiderling to see how it is going and what the future holds for the Key’s trolley service:
Q. The trolley drivers are distinguished by their tropical shirts; what else is unique about this trolley service?
A. “There is music playing, the bell is ringing, and the drivers are enthusiastic. And of course, it is open-air.”
Q. There have been 25,000 riders in just over two weeks — did that exceed SCAT officials expectations?
A. “Absolutely. We didn’t know how many riders there would be.”
Q. What was the ridership on the highest single day?
A. “We had almost 2,400 riders on the highest day. It proves the trolley is taking a lot of cars off the road. Even if half of the riders would have driven a car, that’s taking a lot of cars off the road … A Thursday was our most popular day, and Mondays and Tuesdays are pretty high. Sundays are pretty popular. And Saturdays [in general] had our lowest ridership.
Q. Why do you think Saturdays have had the lowest ridership?
A. “One reason that Saturday is not a very high day, could be that people are transiting. That’s the day people are leaving [weekly] rentals.”
Q. SCAT is testing demand and impacts of the service. Have there been tweaks in either the hours of operation or trolley route thus far?
A. “The service will run from 8 a.m. in the morning till midnight, with pick-up every 30 minutes [during off peak time], and every 20 minutes during peak time. During off-peak hours, there are two trolleys in operation, and during peak hours, there will be three trolleys in operation.
We’ve already adjusted what those peak hours are. We thought it would be pretty early in the morning, closer to 8 a.m., when most people would ride the trolley. But the peak hours turned out to be later in the day. Currently, the peak hours are noon to 8 p.m. We are trying to customize [the service] to when there are more people using it.”
Q. The county bid that was advertised called for the vehicles to carry a minimum of 20 passengers. How many seats do the trolleys Ride Right is operating have?
A. They range, from about 25 to 27 seats.”
Q. Residents and business leaders have observed a noticeable decrease in congestion on the Key during the peak of the Easter break. Does the county track traffic, or have any evidence that there is less congestion?
A. “We’ve had quite a few compliments, and some have specifically stated that there has been less congestion on the Key because of it. One couple, snowbirds from Maine, said they were so excited to hear about the trolley. Another seasonal resident noted ‘diminished traffic volume’ and that the trolley ‘opened up the Village’ to residents on the southern part of the Key and back.
One caller said they will now spend more time in the Village because they don’t have to [drive and] fight for parking.”
Q. Where do riders seem to be utilizing the trolley so far?
A. “People on Turtle Beach are saying they are using it and feel more connected. Before, they didn’t feel connected because of the traffic. There was a bus stop [on Turtle Beach], but people didn’t use that.
People are also getting on the trolley from the Village or the public beach.”
Q. How are drivers adjusting to the trolley?
A. “Many are noticing the fewer cars — which is a good thing.
The only few complaints we’ve received is that the trolley has been going a little too slow. One person said they were following the trolley towards Turtle Beach, and it was going 27 mph in a 35 mph zone.
The trolley cannot pull all the way over to the side, for safety reasons, because of bike lanes. And it can take time for the trolley to get to speed between stops. The message we want to get out there to people is: to work with us. The trolley is getting cars off the road, so please have some patience.”
Q. Will the trolley service replace the route 10 bus route?
A. “Yes, we are removing the Route 10 route, and the trolley is replacing that. We transferred that funding and applied it to the open-air trolley.”
Q. And how will it be funded?
"The funding is currently covered 50 percent by a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) grant and 50 percent by local funding currently appropriated in the Sarasota County Transportation Authority Fund. The pilot program goes until August, and that is when our funding runs out. We are currently looking at ways to fund it moving forward. For options, we are looking for some more grant funding, or maybe reallocating some funding from existing routes. Obviously, if this is helping traffic congestion and pulling folks off road we want to look at routes that might not be working, and reallocating some of that funding. Either option would likely have to go before the County Commission. We need to secure 100 percent of funding going forward.
Q. How much does the trolley service cost to run?
A. “One year of service costs $1 million to operate.”