By Rachel Brown Hackney
The free Siesta Key Breeze trolley service launched on March 20 continues to win rave reviews — a fact reinforced when the Siesta Key Association (SKA) announced the results of a survey it sent to more than 1,000 of its members.
“[W]e have achieved over a 30% response — quite a good return rate for a survey, I believe,” SKA Director Gene Kusekoski wrote in a May 2 email. “To us, this indicates that our members are very interested in the fate of the Trolley going forward.”
More people responded to the survey after Kusekoski discussed it during the May 4 SKA meeting: As of May 11, the number of participants had climbed to 341.
Kendra Keiderling, marketing, outreach and customer service supervisor of Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT), told SNL in a telephone interview that visitors to the Key on April 30, during the annual Siesta Fiesta art and crafts show, were especially enthusiastic about being able to leave their vehicles at Turtle Beach Park and ride the trolley to Siesta Village.
SCAT continues to get “just incredible feedback” about the open-air service, she added.
As of May 11, Kusekoski’s data showed 48.3% of the respondents voted for seasonal service while another 44.7% said the trolley should operate all year.
As county leaders explained during the March 20 ribbon-cutting ceremony, the Breeze is a pilot program that will run through August. SCAT staff had to win the approval of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to shift some grant funding to the service. Continuation of the trolley runs will be contingent on securing the necessary money, SCAT Director Rocky Burke has pointed out.
In response to the SKA’s question about whether the use of taxpayer funds to keep the trolley service operating without cost to riders is appropriate, 88.9% of the 324 respondents to that question said, “Yes.”
Regarding the question, “Approximately how many times have you and/or your family members and friends used the Trolley since March 20, 2017?” 50.8% of the SKA members said they had not been on the Breeze but would like to ride it; 28.8% had been passengers up to 10 times; and 6% had ridden it 10 to 20 times. Another 1.5% marked the answer, “Too many to count!”
The vast majority of those who had been on the Breeze had used it to travel from their place of residence to Siesta Village: 81.2%. Siesta Beach was in second place with 27.2%.
The SKA survey also invited respondents to provide comments, and 83 had chosen to do so by May 11. Those remarks covered a gamut of issues — from wishing the service ran as far north as Higel Avenue to the suggestion that the county should be paying for “more pressing things.”
Some said the trolley slows down other traffic, but others noted that it reduces the number of vehicles on the roads. One person wrote, “The number of cars removed from the road on [Siesta Key] is justification enough for this service. The congestion has reached a point (during high-tourist times) that it reduces the appeal of the area. Loss of tourism dollars will be much greater than the cost of free trolley service.”
A few people suggested charging $1 per trip, though one person recommended letting children age 12 and under ride the Breeze for free. A second thought $2 a day should be considered. The latter respondent added, “We LOVE the Trolley!! Thanks.”
One person commented, “When we return to the Key we will use this service and be more apt to go to the Village for shopping and restaurants. Right now, parking is such a problem. Good Luck!!”
Yet another wrote, “Mix public and private support,” noting that the service is very convenient, “and vacationers as well as [residents] can afford to pay a reasonable fee. Public support should also be present as the [Key] provides a great deal of revenue for the County which likely exceeds the services provided.”
One complained about too many people being on the Breeze at one time. “I had to jump off because it was too hot and people were wall to wall. It was not safe!”
Yet another wrote, “I see the trolley but it never seems to be full.”
One person seemed to sum up the views expressed by many: “The trolley creates a vacation atmosphere. Just a great idea and cuts traffic. Makes me smile.”
Early figures indicated the service was averaging about 1,500 passengers a day, Mark Smith, chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, pointed out to SNL during a May 2 telephone interview. If one considered the typical motor vehicle has two people in it, he added, that meant the trolley was eliminating 750 vehicles a day from Midnight Pass and Beach roads. That added up to 25,000 fewer cars, trucks and SUVs a month during high season on the Key, he pointed out. “That’s huge. That’s a serious impact.”
Smith said he believes SCAT’s staff will find the means to keep the Breeze operating beyond the period of the pilot program. “To me, this is money in the bank to the county,” he added.
Traditionally, Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates reminded the county’s Tourist Development Council members on March 23, Siesta Key accounts for close to one-third of the county’s annual Tourist Development Tax revenue.
Making it easier for people to enjoy being on Siesta Key without traffic worries, Smith pointed out, “is an investment.”
On a final note, the trolley is averaging over 500 riders a day in the month of May, one of the slowest months of the year for visitors to the key.