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Date of Issue: June 10, 2009

Chamber execs propose trolley options

6-10-09/county-trolley-2002.jpg
Islanders preview the Manatee County Area Transits new Island trolley at Holmes Beach City Hall in March 2002. Islander File Photo: Rick Catlin
6-10-09/egan-trolley.jpg

Chamber of commerce board members are seeking a meeting with county officials to explore ideas to address a proposed $1-a-day trolley fare.

 “We are kind of realizing, due to a variety of situations — the economy, the grants having run out — the necessity,” Cindy Thompson, a member of the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce executive board said, referring to a proposed trolley fare.

But, Thompson added, chamber officials also believe that if the county enacts a fare, there should be some exemptions and discounts.

The chamber does not “want” a fare and “we’ve always voted against it. Always,” Thompson said, but “unfortunately, we realize it may be inevitable.”

Presenting a preliminary budget for fiscal year 2010, which begins in October, county administrator Ed Hunzeker recommended a series of spending cuts and some fee increases.

The county must slash $33.7 million while dealing with a significant decline in revenues.

One source of new revenue for local transit would be a $1 day pass for the Island trolley, which currently operates without a rider fare and at a budget deficit.

The fare would help subsidize the trolley operation, as well as allow local governments to discontinue their contributions to help fund the transportation line, Hunzeker said in a message he presented to county commissioners in late May.

County Commissioner John Chappie, who represents the third district, including the Island, said he wants the trolley to remain free to passengers and has requested statistics on ridership and tourism.

“I know people in the rental business and it is a big selling item for them,” Chappie said, adding that the trolley also is vital for Island workers.

 County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she too wants to explore options to continue a free service.

  “I’m trying to think of a creative way to do it,” said Whitmore, an at-large commissioner and former Holmes Beach mayor. “I’m trying to see if I can get it funded without people having to pay.”

But some local business leaders have doubts about that possibility.

Chamber executive board members, meeting last week, discussed the trolley and focused on concepts to soften the impact if a fare is implemented.

Thompson said students and seniors should be eligible for free passes and that perhaps a discount pass could be sold to those who ride the trolley every day, such as workers on the Island.

Chamber president Mary Ann Brockman said a meeting is being scheduled with county officials, including Hunzeker and some commissioners, and chamber executive board members.

“We’re trying to find a time to meet,” Brockman said.

In the days following Hunzeker’s budget presentation, citizens began weighing in on the proposed fare, drafting letters to elected officials and newspaper editors, and sharing their opinions while riding the trolley.

“I don’t mind paying a buck to ride the thing,” said Cortez resident Dave Schuckert, expressing an opinion shared by a majority of those The Islander interviewed on the subject last week. “But I don’t think the kids should. I bet you the ridership in the summer is 50 percent kids.”

Islander Bette Chesbro said trolley riders are still getting a good deal.

“I ride the bus to work in Bradenton,” said the Holmes Beach resident. “And I have to pay to do it. Nobody is giving me a free fare, and I work as hard as anybody who uses the trolley to get to work.”

But trolley-rider Brad Vernon of Bradenton Beach said he barely covers his monthly expenses with a minimum-wage job on the Island.

“A dollar probably doesn’t mean much to a lot of people, but, end of the month, I don’t have an extra buck, and no way an extra $30,” he said.

Asked about the proposed fare, trolley-rider Mary Proctor of Rhode Island said, “I was surprised I didn’t have to pay.”

The county budget process will continue this summer, with commissioners delving into Hunzeker’s proposals.

The trolley costs about $1 million a year to operate.

 

In the beginning

In March 2002, after nearly six years of planning, Islanders celebrated the startup of the fare-free trolley operated by Manatee County Area Transit.

The trolley, at the time, was to be free at least for the first year, according to The Islander archives. County commissioners had hoped to pay for the trolley in future years with grants and revenue from advertisements.

The county trolley began operating on the Island March 18, 2002, the day after a ribbon-cutting celebration at Holmes Beach City Hall.

 

Get on the record

To reach Manatee County administrator Ed Hunzeker or county commissioners, call 941-748-4501 or write PO Box 1000, Bradenton, FL 34206-1000.

One of the simplest ways to reach county officials is via e-mail:

County administrator Ed Hunzeker: ed.hunzeker.mymanatee.org.

Commissioners:

Larry Bustle: larry.bustle@mymanatee.org.

Gwen Brown: gwen.brown@mymanatee.org.

John Chappie: john.chappie@mymanatee.org.

Ron Getman: ron.getman@mymanatee.org.

Donna Hayes: donna.hayes@mymanatee.org.

Carol Whitmore: carol.whitmore@mymanatee.org.

Joe McClash: joe.mcclash@mymanatee.org.

 

Ride free, or not?

It’s time to heat up the pipes to speak for or against the trolley to someone who matters. It won’t help to chat it up with neighbors or coworkers.

It’s government that pays, and it’s government that will make the decision about the Island trolley. Manatee County government, the county administrator and the commissioners, need to hear from you — the people who ride and encourage trolley use by friends, family, guests and visitors to Anna Maria Island.

As a service of Manatee County Area Transit, the trolley budget and all county revenues and spending are under tight scrutiny.

And you would be the bird with its head in the sand if you weren’t aware that government revenues, including the Island cities’ projected incomes, are down.

Expect cuts in spending and services.

The ride-free trolley may be no exception.

Elsewhere in the county, even the most needy people pay to ride the transit routes. Sarasota County Area Transit now operates a Longboat Key trolley to Sarasota and southward that links up at Coquina Beach with our service, but riders pay.

Many months of talks with officials about promoting the Island-Key service — including a fair fare — came to a halt when a Longboat chamber official unexpectedly resigned.

The talks, at least, brought MCAT and SCAT together, and all agreed the service — the big loop of service from Anna Maria Island to Siesta Key — should be better promoted. All also agreed that two government departments, each with limited resources, would struggle to accomplish that.

With some of the right moves, low-cost passes for some and advance purchase discounts, the $1 a day fare won’t be such a bite.

Many visitors are surprised to find the trolley ride free, and say they would gladly pay for the pleasurable ride and convenience.

One Islander says government should spend less on overseas campaigns for visitors to AMI and keep the trolley free.

Maybe the tourism tax will provide tourism the services needed — trolley, better beach facilities and a welcome center at the beach.

But we have to get it started.

Speak up.

Let’s all ride this to the end.

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