By Rachel Brown Hackney
County Commission attention also focused on the Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley as the board members reviewed the Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) budget for the next fiscal year.
The Breeze, SCAT Interim Director Rob Lewis said on June 18, “remains one of our, if not the, most popular routes.”
As of that date, he continued, 233,822 people had ridden the trolley during the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, 2018. “We certainly expect that in four months, we will break last year’s record [of 250,000].”
Lewis added that the trolley’s popularity just continues to grow.
Not only has it led to a reduction in the number of vehicles on Siesta’s roads, Lewis continued, but it also has led to more economic development on both ends of the island, with people using the Breeze to easily access businesses and restaurants.
As he has in the past, Commissioner Alan Maio talked of his fear that, after pushing for the establishment of the trolley, he would see ridership at no more than 3,000 a month. “We’re now … [seeing] 40,000 riders a month. That’s just a phenomenal thing, the trolley.”
The lowest ridership count for any month thus far this fiscal year has been 12,400,” Lewis responded.
Then Chair Charles Hines referenced past comments from Siesta residents and the commissioners themselves about the potential of extending the Breeze’s route to the northern end of the island, as well as finding spots for pullouts, where the trolley could stop to allow vehicles to pass it legally.
Reprising remarks he made to members of the Siesta Key Condominium Council in March, Lewis responded that the problem has been identifying a suitable location for the trolley to turn around on the northern end of Siesta. From the Turtle Beach Park parking lot, he noted, it travels to Morton’s Siesta Market in Siesta Village.
No area on the northern end — except potentially Nora Patterson Bay Island Park — has been found thus far to have enough room to accommodate the turnaround, Lewis added. Yet, the park is not the perfect location, he continued, because of the difficulty in making left turns out of it.
Moreover, Lewis said, if the trolley continued to a park-and-ride spot on the mainland, that would add “time and effort,” as well as expense.
Additionally, he noted, people might be reluctant to use park-and-ride lots because of worries about handling beach gear, such as chairs, on the Breeze.
As for the pullouts: Most of that comes down to a matter of right of way access, Lewis explained, and it would be expensive for the county to try to acquire any of that right of way on the Key. He could not imagine any property owner, he said, “being happy with eminent domain to take right of way.” He suggested such a county initiative would be “a tremendously poor use of … time and our resources.”
Further, he told the board, “There are some parts of Siesta Key that really don’t want a pullout in front of their property. We’ve experienced that in my past lives with the county.”
This is not Lewis’ first time serving as interim SCAT director. He has held a number of other positions with the county, too, through his decades of service on the staff.
Lewis did point out to the commissioners that mobile apps for the trolley are available on both the Android and Apple operating systems. “You can, with a great degree of predictability,” pursue other activities, such as shopping, while being assured of the time when you should be at a SCAT stop to catch the trolley, he pointed out.