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Downtown group balks at Lido trolley funding request

As the city plots a multimillion-dollar transit route linking the mainland and barrier islands, downtown property owners are skeptical the project will benefit them.

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  • | 3:00 p.m. June 2, 2021
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This fall, the city intends to launch an open-air trolley service running from downtown to Lido Key, but key details — including funding sources  — have not yet been finalized.

City Manager Marlon Brown appeared at Tuesday’s Downtown Improvement District meeting as part of an effort to secure financial support for the trolley. Brown asked the self-taxing group of downtown property owners to commit $450,000 over the next three years toward the public transit service, pitching the initiative as an economic development tool for the areas along the planned route.

City officials are considering a trolley route that would run from east of U.S. 301 to Ted Sperling Park at South Lido Beach. File image
City officials are considering a trolley route that would run from east of U.S. 301 to Ted Sperling Park at South Lido Beach. File image

“To really make it a robust, successful program, we need all the support that we can get from our business community,” Brown said.

Brown’s proposal drew a cool reaction from a majority of the DID board members, who expressed skepticism about the trolley's benefits. To secure the funds Brown is seeking, DID board member Wayne Ruben said the city would have to overcome concerns from stakeholders in the heart of the city.

“Will they take our business and diners and customers to St. Armands?” Ruben said. “Does it diminish downtown? I think that’s a nagging question they’re going to face.”

In April, the City Commission voted unanimously to put out a request for proposals in search of a transportation company interested in operating the trolley service. The program would be funded in part by a $1.5 million grant from the Florida Department of Transportation, but the most robust scope of service under consideration could carry hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional expenses for the city, according to staff projections. The most expansive route the city examined would run from Main Street and School Avenue, through St. Armands Circle to Ted Sperling Park at South Lido Beach.

The city intends to request $300,000 from the self-taxing St. Armands Business Improvement District. Brown said the smaller ask for that group was due to the BID having a smaller tax base.

Brown argued the benefits wouldn’t be unidirectional in favor of St. Armands. He said the city would encourage visitors to park at downtown garages before heading to the barrier islands via the trolley, which could lead to beachgoers patronizing downtown businesses. 

Despite his efforts to persuade the DID that a rising tide would lift all boats, board members were not convinced.

“Is this project good for Sarasota? I say 100%, it’s good for Sarasota,” Soto said. “Is it good for the downtown core, the DID? I think it’s going to take away from us.”

DID board member Mark Kauffman pointed to the limited boundaries of the taxing district as another reason to question the prospect of funding the trolley service. Kauffman said the group prefers to focus its expenditures on projects within the district itself.

“How do we respond to the DID people who say I’m paying tax dollars — $450,000 over three years — and the guy on the next block is paying nothing for it?” Kauffman said.

Although all five DID board members expressed either hesitance or opposition to the city’s funding request, the group did not rule out contributing to the trolley program. Ruben asked whether the DID could approve one year of funding and decide whether to renew its commitment in the future. Brown said the city would welcome whatever support the group was willing to provide.

“I think we need to be a team player and partner with the city in whatever fashion we can,” Ruben said.

After the meeting, Brown said he remained optimistic about partnering with the DID, but the trolley project doesn’t hinge on the group’s participation. The city is still awaiting the conclusion of its search for an operating partner, at which point officials will have more information about the cost  — and the corresponding funding needs. In addition to support from the DID and BID, Brown said staff will propose using some of the city’s economic development fund for the program.

Some key details of the trolley service, such as the hours of operation and the exact route, could be subject to change depending on funding availability, Brown said. Despite the lack of a finalized plan, Brown said he believed the trolley would ultimately be an energizing tool for downtown, St. Armands and the city as a whole.

“I think this will be exciting for our community,” Brown said. “I think it’s successfully working over on Siesta Key, and we hope to replicate something similar.”


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