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Mechanical troubles sideline trolleys

By Lisa Neff, Islander Reporter

Clang, clink, clunk went the trolleys.

So riders likely will see more substitute buses being employed in the fare-free trolley service on Anna Maria Island.

And maybe in a year, riders might see new trolleys in service on the Island, said Manatee County administrator Ed Hunzeker.

Hunzeker planned on Sept. 28 to ask the Manatee County Board of Commissioners for authorization to use federal transportation funding to buy new trolley vehicles.

Hunzeker also planned to talk with commissioners about how to compensate Island businesses that paid for trolley ads to help maintain a fare-free trolley system.

The six Manatee County Area Transit open-air trolleys — vehicles that have been incorporated into the Island image — suffer so much mechanical failure that they often are in the garage rather than on the road, according to county officials.

“The trolleys are not constructed for the long distance and the hours that we use them,” Hunzeker said.

The mechanical problems likely will lead to the trolleys being replaced. The problems also may lead to the trolleys being taken off the road, possibly to be reserved for use during the busiest tourist times.

The issue has come up at several Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce meetings over the summer. Most recently at a Sept. 15 meeting at which Hunzeker informed business owners and trolley advocates that the present trolleys should be retired, and he wants to use federal money to replace them.

“These trolleys were targeted to be purchased a long time ago,” said Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash. “They’ve had mechanical issues for years now. I don’t think its something we should delay.”

The county commissioners, at their Sept. 28 meeting, will be asked to authorize the purchase of five diesel trolleys — each costs $459,113 for a total of $2,295,565 and a different make and model than those currently on the road — from Gillig Corporation in Hayward, Calif.

Whether the existing trolleys will make it another year — it could take that long to get new vehicles — is a question, Hunzeker said. “Doubtful” was his best answer.

In the meantime, Manatee County Area Transit will continue to substitute standard buses for broken-down trolleys on the Island route.

The bus substitution raises questions for the chamber board and member businesses that purchased advertising on the trolleys, part of a campaign to help the county operate the service without fares.

If the trolleys aren’t on the road, riders, motorists and pedestrians aren’t seeing the eye-popping ads promoting local restaurants, resorts, real estate and rental agencies and other businesses.

“One of the trolleys has been in the shop the whole time,” Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said, referring to the start of the ad campaign earlier this year.

“With the trolleys being down and out of service 40 percent or 50 percent of the time, our advertisers weren’t getting what they paid for,” said Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce board chair Cindy Thompson.

A number of Island businesses have committed to two-year contracts to advertise on the trolleys.

“The advertising program has been a big success,” said David Teitelbaum, vice chair of the Manatee County Tourist Development Council, an Island developer and resort owner, and an active chamber member. Teitelbaum was instrumental in launching the advertising program, as well as founded a spring festival to raise money to keep the trolleys fare-free.

“Since June we’ve paid $40,000 to the county,” he said. But businesses have committed to as much as $100,000 in advertising on the trolleys over the next two years.

Teitelbaum said the county is working on a plan that likely will involve refunding a large portion of the advertising dollars.

“The story is, the trolleys are not holding up,” Teitelbaum said. “At least 40 percent of the time they are off the road. We’ve not been happy about that.”

He observed that his Anna Maria Island Resorts ad is on the vehicle that has been in the maintenance garage much of the summer.

“I told Ed (Hunzeker), ‘Hey, I haven’t seen my trolley,’” Teitelbaum said.

Hunzeker later told him, “I found it. It’s in the shop” and the mechanics really like the ad.

“The trolleys are loved by everybody and provide a tremendous service to the people who live here and vacation here,” Teitelbaum said. “But the current trolleys, they really are the first generation and they have problems.”

Thompson said regardless of whether there is a bus or a trolley motoring from one end of the Island to the other, “the public needs and will use the transportation.”

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