On Day 1 of the Bay Runner last year, 208 passengers tested the route between downtown Sarasota and Lido Key. In the one year since, more than 150,000 riders have taken advantage of the free ride as the trolley service marked its first anniversary on March 2.
That success already has city officials thinking about expanding the program.
Funded by a $1.5 million grant from the state of Florida, doled out in $500,000 increments each over three years, and bolstered by $50,000 each annually from the Downtown Development District and the St. Armands Business Improvement District, the Bay Runner enters its second year well ahead of ridership projections, said Planning Director Steven Cover.
Combined with the micro-mobility bike and scooter program operated by Veo, total ridership is on pace to exceed 300,000 by the end of March.
“We're just thrilled with the success,” Cover said before a ceremonial ride from City Hall across the Ringling Bridge to St. Armands Circle on Thursday. "The vendors have been spectacular to work with, and we fully intend on keeping this going.”
That will require more funding beyond 2025. Cover said the ridership figures, should they continue on pace, will bolster the city’s case for further state dollars. The primary objective of the Bay Runner is to take vehicles off the road, particularly over the perpetually busy Ringling Bridge, reducing traffic and emissions. Should the state decline, Cover said additional funding sources will be explored.
“We understand the important role the Bay Runner is playing with mobility,” said City Manager Marlon Brown in a news release. “We are reviewing all potential funding sources to ensure the trolley continues.”
With a fleet of three open-air buses, two of them in operation at any given time and all three during certain special events, the Bay Runner is operated by CPR Medical Transport, the company that runs the popular Siesta Key Breeze trolley. Each trolley-style bus seats 28.
But not everybody is sitting.
“One of the really fun things to see is the little kids,” Cover said. “They just get up there and stand right at the window and are just amazed. It's not just a form of transportation. It's fun.”
Just two weeks following the Bay Runner launch, the city rolled out its e-scooter/bicycle rental program. Veo is reporting 127,753 total trips taken between March 2022 and January 2023. Many riders incorporate the Bay Runner and Veo to reach their destination by taking the trolley and a scooter, or vice-versa, for the first or last mile of their trip.
“It’s something to enjoy for visitors, but also for citizens. It’s also taking a lot of traffic off the roads, particularly going over to St. Armands,” Cover said. “I met a couple who lives about five blocks from here and they walk to downtown, hop on the trolley to go to dinner on St. Armands, ride the trolley back and then walk home. That could have been a car on the road.”
Expansion of the program may include an additional route or routes.
“If the ridership keeps going up every month we might have to expand not just on our existing route, but we are going to be looking to maybe have a north-south route as well, potentially linking up with the airport, the colleges and Newtown,” Cover said.
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.