On Air Now    04:00 PM - 06:00 PM
Up Next    06:00 PM - 07:00 PM

Are the BayRunner’s days counted?

Written by on Monday, May 20, 2024

As Sarasota County commissioners keep the purse strings tight for transit, the popular shuttle may have just three years left.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: May 17, 2024

Host: Sarasota County Commissioner Mike Moran doesn’t like big buses, and he went again on the record about it this week. His colleague Neil Rainford said he believes transit should not come with “deficit spending” – even though on the same day, he endorsed nearly $100 million in construction and repairs for roads that do not generate any revenues for the county. So what do you do, if you’re the head of the county’s transit agency? Our news team followed a Sarasota County Commission workshop this week that discussed a request for a slight increase in spending for transit next year.

The BayRunner connects downtown Sarasota with St. Armands and Lido Key.

Johannes Werner: Probably no user disputes that Sarasota County buses are not only time consuming and unreliable for locals who need them to commute to work or school, and costly for choice riders. Jane Grogg wants to make the system more user friendly. But the director of Breeze Transit, until recently known as SCAT, got a clear message at the budget workshop from one of her bosses she cannot count on additional local taxpayer funding to do so.

Commissioner Neil Rainford said he was concerned that federal COVID emergency funding, of which the county transit agency has used upwards of $25 million since 2021, is now running out. To avoid what he calls “deficit spending”, Rainford suggested that user rates for on-demand services must be raised.

Neil Rainford: If we look at fiscal year 2023, we had, even with those funds, we’re looking at about a $2.6 million – give or take – deficit. So that’s going to probably increase to over $6 million when these funds expire.

In case the other commissioners didn’t hear Rainford’s message clear enough, County Manager Jonathan Lewis spelled it out: New service should not be subsidized by general taxpayer funding.

So what do the county commissioners like? They like Uber. They like tourists.

So Grogg didn’t even bother to mention regular fixed-route buses, even though they ship the bulk of passengers in Sarasota and are the backbone of the local transit system.

Among the efforts Grogg brought up in the meeting was fast-expanding on-demand service. Those are vans you can order, mostly if you live in low-density suburban sprawl areas that don’t have sidewalks to get pedestrians safely to a bus stop. It’s just $2 for a ride, which is a steal. But to Breeze, the per-passenger cost is multiples of that in big buses.

So, she’s going all out on trolleys for tourists.


Jane Grogg: We got, of course, our trolley that we launched recently going to the airport, and the one I talked about, the Siesta Key service. Is there a way for us to, over time, create more of a system, where frequent visitor destinations are connected by these various services, and they can get to to Lido, to downtown, to the airport, to Siesta?

There’s the popular Siesta Key trolley she proposes to extend to downtown Sarasota. That would cost an additional $1.23 million per year, which she proposes to partly offset by ending low-demand on-demand service on Siesta Key. It seems the county commissioners are willing to accept that deal.

Then, there’s the recently created nonstop airport-to-downtown trolley. Which is not doing well since its launch late last year, with barely 50 passengers a day. But the commissioners didn’t seem to mind much during the workshop.

Grogg’s proposed extension of the Siesta Key trolley to downtown.

And then there’s the BayRunner, a free service the City of Sarasota started three years ago. That route from downtown to Lido Key is wildly popular. Problem is, while the city takes care of half its funding, the Florida Department of Transportation grant that funds the other half will sunset in 2027. So Grogg proposes to have Breeze get into the act, to make sure the BayRunner will continue.

But that was a road too far for at least three of the commissioners.

Again, Neil Rainford:

NR: To the point about the BayRunner, I think that’s, you’ve heard what I was hesitant on. I think that has to be a net positive to take over that burden.

Bus use in neighboring Manatee County has been on a steep climb since last year, with ridership easily exceeding pre-pandemic numbers. One of the reasons: The Manatee County Commission – all-Republican, like the Sarasota County Commission – last year approved a fare-free pilot program for bus riders, which it extended this year.

Meanwhile in Sarasota County, ridership has failed to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

Free fixed-route service, as practiced in Manatee County, has not been brought up in Sarasota. Quite the opposite: Breeze implemented a fare hike last fall.

Reporting from Sarasota, this has been Johannes Werner for WSLR News.


WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.