SCAT releases Siesta Key Breeze ridership data

By Rachel Brown Hackney
SarasotaNewsLeader.com

With Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) having released three full years of ridership data for the Siesta Key Breeze, county commissioners once more have been figuratively singing the trolley’s praises.

During a Feb. 5 discussion about innovative ways to provide public transportation, Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler brought up the Breeze.

“That’s a fabulous service,” he told the consultant who was addressing the board. “It’s consistent, when it’s going to stop, where it’s going to go. I wish we had more of ’em. [The Breeze] gets used.”

“It would be great if we had the same sort of experience at a countywide level,” Ziegler added, with no long waits for buses.

Ziegler joked that he was surprised Commissioner Alan Maio had not brought up the trolley during the discussion that morning.

In response, Maio said dryly, “I want to thank Commissioner Ziegler for reminding me … I need that.”

Then Maio told his colleagues that when he attended a Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce meeting the previous week, he learned that the trolley’s ridership had grown to 350,000 passengers a year.

The SCAT report on the trolley, a copy of which SNL obtained from county staff, shows how ridership has been building gradually. Although the Breeze did not begin operations until late March 2017, it still netted 160,166 passengers that year.

In 2018 — even with months of diminished tourism as a result of the red tide bloom — the total passenger count was 226,657. The biggest month was March of that year, with 34,848 riders, though April 2018 was not far behind — 34,458. (At that point, the red tide bloom was present off the county shoreline, but it was not producing the effects that would begin driving away visitors by August 2018.)

In March 2019, ridership hit its highest monthly count yet — 62,699, an increase of almost 80% from the previous March’s total. Once again, April was in second place, with 48,067.

This year, the ridership figure for January was 39,280, a 43% increase from the 27,469 totals in January 2019.

Siesta Key leaders and business owners pushed for an open-air trolley service for years before SCAT staff was able to cobble together grant funding for it on a trial basis. Siesta supporters of the concept were convinced the trolley would prove to be a success.

Nonetheless, Maio told his colleagues on Feb. 5, “I can remember when I thought I was lying when I said to staff, ‘Oh, it’s going to be about 1,500 [riders] a month.’”

Maio has remarked on a number of occasions that all he could do was hope for the best — that the Breeze would gain acceptance among visitors on the Key and reduce traffic congestion.

Mark Smith, the Siesta architect who long has been a leader of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, has said he believes that for every two passengers on the Breeze, one vehicle has been eliminated from the island’s roads.

During her organization’s regular meeting on Feb. 6, Siesta Key Association President Catherine Luckner told members, “We are advocating with the commissioners to find every way they can” to keep the Breeze running.

A trolley ‘sidebar’: pets and the app

“Are dogs allowed on the trolley?” one Siesta Key Association (SKA) audience member on Feb. 6 asked President Catherine Luckner.

“I’ve not heard that they’re not,” Luckner replied.

“I’ve been refused with my dog,” the woman said. “There’s one particular driver who doesn’t want a dog on there,” the woman added. “He claims it’s only service dogs [that are allowed].”

SKA Director Joyce Kouba promised to find an answer.

The SNL also took the opportunity to ask Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) staff about dogs on the trolley. 

A Feb. 7 response from SCAT, through county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant, said, “The trolley has a policy of allowing Service Animals onboard, not pets. Lap pets or other non-service animals may have been turned away due to the driver’s concern over safety of the animal or the passengers.”

Another trolley-related issue arose during the SKA discussion. Two directors reported that the app launched last year — which was designed to enable passengers to determine how long a wait they would have for a trolley at their stop — has not been functioning properly.

“The app is not reliable,” is how Director Erin Kreis put it.

The SNL also asked SCAT staff about those remarks.

In a separate email on Feb. 7, a SCAT staffer wrote, “There are a number of factors that affect the Trolley App performance. We have found that over time, glitches develop as mobile operating systems are updated. When this is identified, a call goes to the app developer to take a look and fix [it]. Also, weather and air-traffic (use of bandwidth) on Siesta Key sometimes has an impact on the quality of the cellular signal between the bus and the app. And more recently, new equipment, for testing purposes, has been installed on one of the four buses, which has resulted in loss of modem on that unit. So potentially on any given day one bus is not transmitting its location.”