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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

St. Armands trolley expansion suggested; new Island buses in works

Regarding the trolley bus service on Anna Maria Island, there is:

Good news.

Nail-biting news.

Off-in-the-future possible great news.

Manatee County Area Transit Manager Ralf Hessler said Monday that a joint participation agreement with the county and the Florida Department of Transportation was well in the works to secure four more open-air trolley buses for service on the Island.

Total cost is $800,000, with the county and DOT splitting the purchase price.

The new trolleys, Hessler said, are "state-of-the-art" vehicles that should not be as prone to the mechanical problems that the current five-trolley-fleet have encountered since the system began in late March 2002.

They're also a lot quieter.

Hessler said he visited the manufacturer in Deerfield Beach, Fla., recently, and with only the frame and engine - no body - the new trolley was "quieter than what we have now." Noise has been one of the main complaints by Islanders regarding the free trolley service.

The new trolleys could be in service by July. That's the good news.

The nail-biting news is that the DOT has placed in its 2006-10 budget 50-percent operational funding for the trolley service on the Island, but the money is "still being requested."

Hessler said the current three-year grant which initiated the trolleys on the Island expires next June. DOT still has time to find funding to keep the system going at the same 50-50 split that has allowed the buses to roll free of charge for patrons.

DOT funds requested are $477,000 for fiscal year 2005-06, $343,000 for 2006-07, and $535,000 for 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10. Manatee County would match the DOT dollars.

Hessler said worst-case scenario would call for the county to pick up the whole balance to operate and maintain the trolleys, or charge a fare for riders.

But the trolleys will roll, no matter what happens.

"Manatee County has no intention of pulling the service out of the Island," Hessler said. "It's like a feather in the cap of the county."

The reason for the feather lies in the ridership. Hessler said last year's "high season" trolley patrons during February-March were better than 2,000 per day; the "low season" of last August saw more than 500 people riding the bus every day. Countywide bus numbers are much, much lower than the Island trolley service.

And it's probably those ridership numbers that have created the optimistic news.

Members of the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization Monday unanimously agreed to have staff begin facilitating an expansion of the Anna Maria Island trolley service to St. Armands Key.

Key players in the expanded route would include the historically reluctant Town of Longboat Key, which is now apparently enthusiastic about the concept of keeping vehicles off the road, plus Sarasota County, the City of Sarasota, and Manatee County.

"I think it's a great opportunity," Longboat Key Town Commissioner Jeremy Whatmough told the MPO. "The naysayers will say the trolley will back up traffic, but the traffic is backed up already. We have more interest in pursuing this now than in the past."

DOT had funded a trolley service from St. Armands to the tip of Anna Maria Island in 1993, but withdrew the dollars when Longboat Key officials balked at the concept of having "toonertown trolleys" running on Gulf of Mexico Drive.

Hessler said the St. Armands trolley would link to the Island system. Times of pickup and hours of operation are still up for discussion, he added, and meetings would probably go on for at least a year before reaching a consensus about the expanded route.