Manatee County is refunding to the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce the advertising money the chamber raised to keep the Island trolleys operating fare-free.
The county board of commissioners Oct. 7 voted 5-1 to reimburse the chamber $40,200 for the ads on the trolleys, which, according to county administrator Ed Hunzeker, have not had the greatest visibility due to mechanical problems with the vehicles.
The county was relying on annual advertising income from the chamber to help fund the fare-free trolley service, but Hunzeker recommended reallocating $60,000 from the county beach concession to help pay for the trolleys in 2010-11.
The ad campaign could be revived when new vehicles arrive next fall, Hunzeker said.
The total refund to the chamber — which amounts to two payments toward its $60,000 a year commitment to the county — will be returned to the businesses that purchased ads.
Late last month, county commissioners authorized the purchase of five new vehicles for the trolley route — they will be buses styled as trolleys rather than the vehicles now on the road.
The trolley program debuted in 2002, when the county put five custom “trolleys” on the road that featured the open-back design.
In 2006, four more custom vehicles were purchased and then three of the oldest trolleys were transferred to Sarasota County for use on Longboat Key.
“They’ve been saying for a while that this second batch that they bought were junk,” Bob Herrington of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization recently told a citizens group meeting at Bradenton Beach City Hall.
For the Oct. 7 county commission meeting, county staff prepared a report that noted the popularity of the Island service, but emphasized that “since the beginning of the program, vehicle reliability has been very poor due to the fact that the vehicles are custom made to provide for the open-back style and create high maintenance costs and down time.”
The trolley service requires three vehicles on the road 365 days a year, generally from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., with each trolley traveling 292 miles per day. About 36,162 passengers ride the trolley each month, and each trolley goes about 8,700 miles a month or 105,000 miles a year, 37 percent more miles than the average MCAT bus.
“The story here is they are laboring very hard in some very cruel environs,” MCAT manager Ralf Heseler said of the trolleys and Island conditions — salt air, sand, water and dust.
An MCAT report estimated that the repair and maintenance cost for a county bus is about 41.5 cents compared to 68.9 cents for a trolley.
Details of mechanical failures on just one trolley this past year include 75 repair jobs, including 15 repairs for problems with the door and 17 repairs to electrical wiring.
“We’ve got a pickup out there doing the job of a dump truck,” said MCAT fleet manager Mike Brennan.
County officials said the new vehicles due to arrive next August will be reliable and built for the “heavy duty” work required on the Island. Instead of using a motor-home chassis, which is what’s on the current trolleys, the replacement vehicles will be buses.
The new vehicles, being purchased under a federal grant for $2.3 million, will feature a “trolley style,” including wooden benches, but not an open back.
“It’s a beautiful vehicle,” Heseler said.
He added, “We can get any color schemes and patterns that we like,” including the two-tone sea green on the current vehicles.
Manatee County Commission Chair Donna Hayes said she supported refunding the advertising money to the chamber, but because she opposes a fare-free service on the Island she voted against the motion.