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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 11, 2021 1 month ago

Trolley service to link downtown, barrier islands

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The city, county and state are collaborating on a new public transportation route, though city officials are pushing to make it more expansive.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

This summer, residents and tourists will be able to take a trolley from downtown Sarasota to St. Armands Circle. (Or a bus with a wrap designed to look like a trolley, at least.)

Sarasota County, the Florida Department of Transportation and the city of Sarasota are partnering on a transportation service linking downtown to the barrier islands. The state provided a $1.5 million grant to fund the service for the next three years. Although some details are still subject to change, the city expects the trolley route to begin in July.

The concept arose in response to the planned construction of a roundabout at Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41, set to begin next month. Colleen McGue, the city’s chief transportation planner, shared some details at Wednesday’s meeting of the St. Armands Business Improvement District. McGue said officials hoped the public transit option could help mitigate congestion associated with roundabout construction, which will require lane closures and extend into 2022.

Although the general concept is firm — a trolley between downtown and St. Armands — some aspects of the initiative are the focus of ongoing negotiations between the city, county and state. As it stands, the plan calls for a single bus operating in a loop, with each stop along the route serviced every 30 minutes. The route would run from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The bus would come from Sarasota County Area Transit’s existing fleet, and the vehicle would have decorative wrapping to emulate the look of a trolley, similar to services in operation in Pinellas County.

When McGue presented the concept to St. Armands and downtown property owners, both groups honed in the time riders would have to wait for the trolley. Mark Kauffman, a downtown property owner, said lowering headways could be crucial in determining the service’s impact.

“Trolleys are only as good as the frequency,” Kauffman said. “If they’re every 15 minutes, they can be successful. Every half-hour, [they] may not be.”

St. Armands property owners were skeptical the 30-minute wait was realistic for a single vehicle looping from the mainland to the barrier islands. McGue said the trolley would start at the downtown SCAT transfer station and offer stops on Main Street; near The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota; on Bird Key; on Coon Key; and at St. Armands.

McGue said the city hopes to find a way to cut down headway by adding another vehicle to the route. She said the city wanted to expand service to Sundays, which drew a positive response from St. Armands group. The city is also pushing for the inclusion of another stop at Lido Beach to accommodate more residents, tourists and beachgoers.

The St. Armands BID also questioned the look of the vehicles. Although McGue said the wraps were more effective visually than one might expect, board member Tom Leonard said he believed a traditional open-air trolley would be more appealing for potential riders.

In discussing concepts for expanded transit to the barrier islands, Mayor Hagen Brody has also expressed a strong preference for an open-air trolley, stating he believes the city should be willing to fund such a project on its own if necessary. Brody does not think visitors and residents will be as interested in riding a reskinned bus, and if the county’s transit plan is unsuccessful, he fears it may scare off officials from pursuing a trolley route in the future. 

“You’re going to have this proof of failure without an accurate representation of what an open-air trolley would add to the community,” Brody said.

McGue said SCAT does not own any trolleys; the open-air trolleys used for the Siesta Key Breeze service are leased. McGue said the city has researched the cost of acquiring a trolley, which she pegged at $450,000 per vehicle.

McGue said the City Commission will discuss the trolley service in April, which could be an opportunity to provide policy guidance on the details that are still outstanding. Ahead of that meeting, the downtown and St. Armands groups both said they saw potential in the concept, but they encouraged the city to do what was necessary to ensure the trolley was actually successful.

“If you’re going to get into it, do it wholeheartedly,” Leonard said.

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