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Date of Issue: August 02, 2007

HB officials concerned for trolley's fate

hb-trolley.jpg
Signs by the side of the road
Manatee County has offered to provide Holmes Beach with new signs for the trolley stops in the city. The county transportation department already has placed new signs on the mainland. Holmes Beach officials welcomed the offer, provided the signs donít create too much clutter. Islander Image: Courtesy Manatee County Area Transit

Holmes Beach city commissioners last week shared concern that a possible fare for the Island’s trolley service might take riders off the trolley and put more drivers on the road.

Commissioners also shared concern that a fare might impact tourism on the Island. “That,” said city commissioner David Zaccagnino, “is our bread and butter.”

Manatee County staff and commissioners, seeking to trim a 2007-08 proposed budget, have circulated the idea of changing the trolley from a free ride to a fare ride.

Holmes Beach commissioners discussed the concept last week with Manatee County Area Transit director Ralf Heseler.

Heseler appeared at the Holmes Beach meeting to invite the city to participate in MCAT’S new sign program. The county already has erected new signs on the mainland for MCAT’s fixed-route bus system — highly reflective blue signs with a picture of a bus that are mounted on a 7-foot-tall pole. The county is offering similar signs — highly reflective green signs with a trolley symbol — for the Island system.

“Visibility is important,” Heseler said, adding that the trolley depicted is an international symbol that tourists will recognize.

Heseler said the county would pay for the signs with federal funds.

Holmes Beach commissioners welcomed Heseler’s offer to provide the city with the signs, poles and route maps at no cost. But commissioners were not enthusiastic about MCAT’s proposed 50-cent trolley fare to help offset the county’s budget crunch. (See story on page one).

Heseler said the proposed county budget is a “work in progress” and the proposed fare was one way to increase revenues, along with fare increases for other transportation services.

“You might lose some free riders,” Heseler acknowledged. But he predicted only a hiccup in ridership — a fall and then an increase in ridership — if a fare is put on the service.

  “We’re all between a rock and a hard place,” Heseler said. “Everyone has to feel a little bit of a pinch.”

Holmes Beach Commission Chair Sandy Haas-Martens noted that the free service “keeps people off the roads in their cars.”

Zaccagnino questioned a proposal that could increase vehicle traffic at a time when the state is focusing on efforts to reduce vehicle emissions.

He also raised concerns about the impact of a fare on tourism.

“Our system makes money,” he said, pointing out that while no one pays a fare for the trolley, the service produces financial dividends for Island businesses, which in turn pay some hefty taxes and employ citizens.

The free service, Zaccagnino said, helps tourists from feeling “nickeled and dimed to death” as they explore the Island.

Commissioner John Monetti added that the free trolley is part of the Island experience and contributes to “the essence of the Island.” He said its value was difficult to quantify, like that of the “free beach” and the “free parking” at public parks and beaches.

County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, attending the meeting, told Holmes Beach officials that she was looking for “three friends” on her board to support a free trolley.

However, the former Holmes Beach mayor said the county’s budget must be cut and a fare may be necessary to be fair countywide.

“I don’t want to charge, but we’ve got to look at everything,” Whitmore said.

But city commissioners wondered whether a fare, rather than raising revenues, might doom the trolley.

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