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A proposed downtown circulator vehicle, provided by Cruise Car Inc., sits outside of the Palm Avenue parking garage before a trial run to test its battery life.
Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 8 years ago

Proposed downtown circulator takes a preliminary test drive

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by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

A six-seat, low-speed golf-cart style electric vehicle circled through downtown Sarasota for six straight hours Monday. It may be a far cry from last year’s proposed trolley, but the unusual cart could signal an early step toward establishing a new transit system in the heart of the city.

The cart was a trial run for a potential downtown circulator that would transport passengers to downtown hotels and businesses. Downtown Sarasota Alliance board member Peter Fanning and Downtown Improvement District Operations Manager John Moran formulated the idea two years ago; the idea stayed dormant until being revived at a recent City Hall meeting.

Fanning said the configuration of Sarasota’s downtown — particularly the length of Main Street and the remoteness of major hotels — meant the transit option would be well suited for the city.

“People say, ‘I park my car downtown, I go see something — I don’t want to drive another mile somewhere else and look for parking again,’” Fanning said.

The plan was relatively modest — the carts used would be street legal, but the speed would top out at around 25 miles per hour. The proposal was a cheaper alternative to other proposed downtown circulator options, such as a trolley or streetcars.

Although the city is still interested in discussing the possibility of a larger-scale downtown circulator, this effort would be privately funded. Fanning founded a charitable organization, called Main Street Connection Inc., to gather donations to pay for the program. The nonprofit group would run the circulator.

The plan for Monday’s test ride — and the re-emergence of the circulator proposal — dates back about three weeks, according to Moran. A group of people — merchants, private individuals, representatives from the city and Visit Sarasota County — gathered at City Hall to discuss concerns relating to the construction of the State Street parking garage.

At that meeting, people expressed a fear that the loss of the 139-space surface lot at State Street and Lemon Avenue would hurt business once construction on the garage begins in the summer. As solutions were discussed, one person mentioned a circulator to carry people from downtown parking locations to businesses near the garage. Moran, present at the meeting, brought up his proposal and started examining its feasibility.

The proposed route focuses on servicing people staying at hotels adjacent to downtown, extending along Island Park Drive to the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, and down Boulevard of the Arts to Hotel Indigo and the Hyatt Regency. Although the route could still change, the philosophy behind it will most likely remain intact.

“The idea was to be able to pick up and drop off people at the existing and proposed hotels,” Moran said. “Right now, there’s no convenient way to get around from those.”

The first question Moran had to address was funding. To determine how to pay for it, he said, the first step was to find out how much the new transportation system would cost.

That’s what led to Monday’s trial run of a vehicle, which Sarasota company Cruise Car Inc. provided. Bill Kics, a contract manager with Cruise Car, drove the vehicle along the proposed route to determine how long the battery-powered vehicles will last before needing to be recharged.

Moran said the goal was to get a fleet of vehicles that picked up passengers along the route every five minutes. He estimated the cost of the vehicles at about $13,000 each, and that around 10 might be necessary to ensure the level of service he imagined.

“What we’re trying to do is avoid in-the-day recharging,” Moran said. “Going to heaven, these things would last a whole workday.”

The early results were inconclusive, Moran said. The total battery life of the vehicles was about six hours, and Kics said they were shooting for somewhere between eight and 10 hours. Kics said Cruise Car would look at adjusting the cars to try to prolong the lifespan of each vehicle. Afterward, the group will conduct another test drive.

It’s still early in the process, but Fanning and Moran both said they were optimistic about the possibility of their vision coming to fruition.

“We’re hoping that once we launch it, people will get behind it and promote it as something that’s attractive to people, that makes them want to come to Sarasota because it’s easier to get around and see the attractions throughout downtown,” Fanning said.

Contact David Conway at [email protected]

 

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