Siesta leaders say trolley would help keep Siesta a top destination
By Roger Drouin
Stephen Leatherman, Professor and Director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, also known as “Dr. Beach,” wants everyone to know about how beautiful Siesta’s beaches are.
In Dr. Beach’s ranking of Siesta Beach as the second top public beach in his list released back in May, the professor wrote that Siesta has “some of the finest, whitest sand in the world.” And Yes, Siesta Beach has “clear, warm waters ideal for swimming,” as Leatherman put it. But the No. 2 ranking — which comes amid the ongoing flurry of national recognition of Siesta as a top tourist destination — did not bring only good news. It has some local island representatives and business leaders worrying about a long-standing issue.
As more and more tourists and visitors come to Siesta, they say a shortage of available parking and the lack of public transportation becomes more problematic.
“Our big fear is that as popular as Siesta Key has become — from Dr. Beach to the TripAdvisor [rankings] — that eventually our visitors are going to find other places to start visiting that are way more convenient,” said Wendall Jacobsen, general manager of Beach Bazaar and president of the Siesta Key Village Association.
Jacobsen and representatives from the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce are intensifying an effort to push for a trolley operation on Siesta Key, an effort that has been ongoing for several years.
Jacobsen said he hears the frustration all the time: people can’t find a place to park and end up driving around futilely. But a trolley — or tram — would allow visitors to park their cars at their resorts and utilize the trolley as they travel about the Key. It would reduce traffic and offer a fun way for families to get around, with coolers and children aboard the open-air vehicles, Jacobsen said.
That’s why in July, Siesta Key representatives from SKA, Village Association and the Chamber of Commerce plan to meet with Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) representatives to “try to emphasize to them the importance” of a trolley.
There are model public trolley operations in beach communities from Clearwater Beach to St. Augustine — and closer to home in Fort Myers Beach and Anna Maria Island — Jacobsen pointed out. “Fort Myers and Anna Maria Island have successful trolley operations, and I can’t believe it is taking as long as it has” to implement a similar operation on Siesta, Jacobsen said.
MCAT (Manatee County Area Transit) offers free trolley rides on Anna Maria Island with both air-conditioned and open-air seating. On Fort Myers Beach, LeeTran offers 50 cent single rides and $1.50 all day passes for its. In addition, Lee County plans to build a $4.9 million, 250-car park and ride center at Summerlin Square to serve its Fort Myers Beach trolley system.
Former Fort Myers Beach resident Alan Cannestra stated “My wife and I owned a property on the south side of Fort Myers Beach. We would often walk the beach down to Time Square; it is a five mile walk. We would have a bite to eat, catch some music and have few drinks. We just hopped on the trolley and paid the 25 cents back to our condo.” Most the residents used and enjoyed the trolleys.”
“It works for other beach communities,” Mark Smith, chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
SCAT is currently exploring the use of possible grants to help fund a trolley. “SCAT is working with the Siesta Key Association to examine the possibility of trolley service, and we’re exploring the use of grants for either purchase, or lease, of trolleys in the future,” said SCAT Director Rocky Burke, through a Sarasota County media spokesperson.
In addition, Burke pointed out, the county transit provides bus service through routes #10 and #11, which both serve Siesta Key.
Smith notes that discussions about a trolley on Siesta Key have been ongoing for years, and he hopes the county can implement a plan to bring a trolley operation to the island soon.
“Every time a new ranking comes out and Siesta Key is listed that does give a boost to the number of visitors we get. So it hammers home the need for the trolley,” Smith told Siesta Sand.
Furthermore, Smith said the Siesta Promenade mixed-use project proposed for the corner of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road would bring additional visitors and traffic to the Key, further highlighting the need for a trolley or tram operation.
‘We need this’
The time for such a public trolley system is now, says Alana Tomasso, general manager at Midnight Cove.
“We cannot afford to have guests choose other vacation destinations simply because we cannot figure this out,” Tomasso said. “We have talked about it for several years, and our island is only getting more popular and populated. We need this.”
The lack of parking, however, may have already put a slight damper on Siesta’s reputation as a top destination, at least according to some recent visitor reviews. For instance, in 2015, 3,993 reviews earned Siesta Public Beach the top spot on TripAdvisor’s list of the nation’s best shoreline destinations. A year later, however, the website’s 2016 Travelers’ Choice rankings saw Siesta drop to No. 3, with several reviewers noting a lack of parking as a problem spot.
Tomasso said parking and traffic continually arise as negative experiences. “As I read through all of my reviews after our guests check out, without fail, the biggest downfalls to their stay are traffic and parking,” Tomasso said.
A better way
The need for a trolley is two-fold, advocates say. Visitors, especially from Europe where public transportation is often a basic and often-used service, would prefer not to drive when they come to Siesta “if they could make their way up and down the Key” in a trolley, Smith said.
Visitors will often ask if there is a way they can travel without a car on the island. “Being in the accommodations industry, I cannot tell you how many times we are asked if there is a ‘trolley or shuttle’ that would run to the village, turtle beach, etc.,” said Tomasso, general manager at Midnight Cove.
“When making reservations, they will ask if they need to have a car or not,” added Smith. “In some communities they visit, they don’t need to rent a car. They don’t know where they are going anyway [when driving].”
Secondly, from a planning perspective, a trolley makes good sense, Smith said. The more people who can get on a trolley, the fewer cars on the road and the fewer parking spaces needed.
Debbie Szczesny, assistant to the general manager at Jamaica Royale, said a trolley would “help reduce the stress of traffic on our two lane road, with special emphasis between the South Bridge, Siesta Key Public Beach and the Village.”
“We are named #1 Beach for a reason, and we should have the resources to accommodate this well deserved title and status,” Szczesny said.
In addition to vacationers asking about transportation, Szczesny said she has been asked by part time and full time residents if there is a way to get to Davidson Drugs, or the local grocery store without taking a car.
Jacobsen believes an open-air trolley or tram is more attractive, fun, and easier to use than a bus that is designed to appear like a trolley. “A trolley is easier to get in and out of, with coolers and children,” Jacobsen said.
St. Augustine has an open-air tram that Jacobsen rode during a recent visit. “We parked our vehicle and got on the tram they have,” Jacobsen told Siesta Sand. “We didn’t get back in the vehicle for five or six hours.”
Smith agrees that an open-air vehicle such as a trolley or tram is most desirable. “It really needs to be an open air vehicle. It needs to be fun.”
Both Smith and Jacobsen believe a trolley on Siesta would augment the current “free beach rides” on the island.
The trolley would “work in conjunction” with the free rides, Jacobsen said. “I think there is a niche for both,” he added. The tram or trolley would come every 20 or 30 minutes at scheduled route stops, whereas the free ride drivers would be available for folks who wanted to call and get picked up at a more specific location, Jacobsen said. In addition, the free rides would be available for the late-night crowd on the island.