Free, open-air trolley coming to Sarasota, St. Armands after city approves $4-million deal

Sarasota County

SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) – Sarasota city commissioners approved plans for an open-air trolley in the City of Sarasota. They’re calling it ‘The Bay Runner’.

The trolley will be free to residents and visitors who wish to travel between downtown, St. Armands Circle, and Lido Beach. It will operate from 8 a.m. to midnight seven days a week.

“It might minimize some of the traffic that makes the trip from downtown to St. Armands or up to the beach so horrific at times. I think it is a good idea,” said longtime county resident Mary Willis.

Commissioner Hagen Brody has been pushing for the trolley for some time. His hope is to better connect the island to downtown.

“We are trying to look at new, fun ways to diversify our transportation options. Obviously, we are still hyper-focused on making sure our traffic grid runs as efficiently as possible, but things that we can do to get people out of their vehicles, particularly visitors out of their vehicles, so they don’t add that congestion and give them a way to get around the town fun and a fun easy manner I think is a great thing for a community,” said Commissioner Brody.

Only one commissioner voted against the plans. Jen Ahearn-Koch explained her hesitation to 8 On Your Side Monday. Her biggest concern is the overall cost of the program.

“When we had started about talking about this a couple years ago, it was about congestion relief and we were trying to work within the grant that FDOT gave us which is about $530,000. So the cost went from $533,000 a year to $1.4 million a year. That was a big concern to me,” explained the at-large commissioner.

The three-year deal will cost more than 4-million dollars to operate. The cost will be covered by the FDOT grant ($1.5 million), $300k from the business improvement districts downtown and on St. Armands, and the city.

The city will foot the largest cost. More than $2.3 million will come out of the city’s Economic Development Fund, leaving only a small portion available for other items.

The EDF was created back in 2017. The money comes from local business tax receipts. Money that goes unused, will roll over to the next fiscal year. The Economic Development Fund for Fiscal Year 2021 has a $852,000 budget with $782,709 going to the Bay Runner trolley.

In the past, the funds have been used for The Bay Park improvements, the Small Business & Safety Assistance Grant Program and other budgeted items.

“I am sure this is going to be a popular item. I am sure it is going to be liked, it will be fun,” said Ahearn-Koch. “It will be nice to look at it when it drives around downtown, it is just…Is that worth the price tag and could we have scaled it down?”

Brody acknowledged the high-cost, but tells 8 On Your Side he believes the ridership will speak volumes to the success of the program.

“These types of projects are not cheap so I think that we found the most cost-effective way to put out the best product for the community which is ultimately what we are trying to do… to have a product that people will use and want,” said Brody. “I think it will be a lot of fun. I really think this is going to be a cool fun way for people to get to and from the island,” he continued.

CPR Medical Transport is the company that will operate the trolley in Sarasota. They also operate the ‘Siesta Key Breeze’ for Sarasota County.

City officials tell us there are still a few details that need to be finalized before the trolley is up and running. It is expected to be operating by early 2022.

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