Many Island residents and accommodation industry owners, managers and rental agents are thanking their lucky stars for the fare-free Island trolley.
Ridership of the trolley, which began operating in 2002, set a one-month record in March 2012 with 64,663 passengers. That outdistanced March 2011 — the previous one-month record — by 21.5 percent, when 53,238 passengers boarded the trolley.
The trolley carried 172,549 passengers in the three-month period from February-April 2012, an increase of 24.8 percent from the 138,238 passengers who rode the trolley during the same three months in 2011, according to figures on the Manatee County website.
Without the fare-free trolley, a lot more cars and drivers would be on Island roads every day, said Holmes Beach Police Chief Jay Romine.
He said that without the trolley the Island might have had serious congestion on its roads many days during the season. Additionally law enforcement officers from all three Island cities might have been pressed into service as traffic control officers on many occasions, were it not for the trolley taking vehicles off Island roads.
“Thank you trolley,” said Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Mary Ann Brockman.
“Without the trolley, it would have been extremely difficult to move around the Island this past season,” said David Teitelbaum, owner of four Bradenton Beach resorts.
“And it appears this was the best season on record. I would not be surprised if we had nearly 150,000 visitors for that three-month period,” he said.
Brockman said the fare-free trolley is one of the major boosts for Island tourism, allowing people to come to the Island, park their car, and just use the trolley. It keeps cars off Island roads, provides a safe environment for travel and has become somewhat of a tourist attraction in its own right, she said.
Without the trolley, the Island might not have been able to sustain its tourism growth the past four years, she acknowledged.
“The trolley kept the Island moving this past season. So many people come up to me and say the free trolley is one of the reasons, often the major reason, they decided to come to the Island. I shudder to think where we would be without it,” he said.
With all four properties booked solidly from February through April and from what other accommodation owners, managers and agents have said, Teitelbaum believes it was a record three months for visitors to the Island.
Teitelbaum’s prediction of a record appears to be backed by the trolley passenger figures.
In February 2012, trolley ridership was reported at 49,044, an increase of 40.1 percent from the 35,012 for the same month in 2011.
April 2012 was also a busy month. The county website reports 58,842 riders took advantage of the free service that month, an increase of 17.7 percent from the 50,025 trolley passengers reported for April 2011.
“It all points toward a record year for tourism,” Teitelbaum said.
At the same time, however, some believe the Island should be careful it can accommodate continued growth in the tourism industry.
Anna Maria Commissioner SueLynn said everyone in the tourism industry — property owners and managers, developers and builders of vacation rentals, rental agents, and marketing specialists at the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau need to stop and take a deep breath.
“Please, don’t’ misunderstand me. I love tourism. It’s the lifeblood of our economy. But we only have a finite amount of space on the Island, and only so many parking spaces,” she said.
“We have to ask if we are over-selling tourism to the Island to a point where we can’t accommodate everyone? Our advertising is doing a wonderful job of drawing visitors,” she observed.
However, she said, as elected officials, she and her colleagues need to take a long look at where Island tourism is headed, “not just in Anna Maria, but throughout the Island.”