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County accepts island help to keep trolleys free

BRADENTON — The three cities on Anna Maria Island got on board to keep the Island Trolley fare-free by donating $8,000 each to Manatee County.

Manatee County commissioners Tuesday voted 5-1 to accept the donations as part of a inter-governmental effort to maintain the trolley service without having to charge a fare.

In addition to the island cities’ contribution, the Tourist Development Council will kick in $26,000 to add to the $460,000 that comes from the county operating budget.

The Florida Department of Transportation makes up the difference of the almost $1 million it costs each year to run the trolley.

Commissioner Joe McClash said it is important to keep the island trolley fare-free because it provides a unique experience.

“Besides, the amount of money we would collect from fares does not come from property taxes,” McClash said, “but from the island cities’ donations and the Tourist Development Council.”

But Commissioner Donna Hayes voted against accepting the donations, protesting the fact that there is no transit service in much of East Manatee, including Lakewood Ranch.

“People out there are willing to pay their share,” said Hayes, who represents much of East Manatee on the commission.

Operation of the sea-mist green buses, designed to look like streetcar trolleys, has been paid for from state and county funds.

Because of increased operating costs and decreased county revenues, Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria began three years ago to contribute $8,000 each to help maintain free service to island residents and visitors.

Trolley ridership has increased since it was initiated in 2002, but so far this year there has been a 14.7 percent decline from the same period last year.

Hayes said she feels the trolley should not be free while Lakewood Ranch does not have any transit service.

Service to the eastern areas of the county is needed, she said, so people can get to shopping centers and educational facilities, such as the Manatee Technical Institute and State College of Florida campuses on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.

The bus service on State Road 70 ends near U.S. 301 at the Wal-Mart Supercenter, and on State Road 64 near Interstate 75.

Ralf Heseler, manager of Manatee County Area Transit, said his department has made three applications for state grant funding to expand service to eastern Manatee County but has been rejected all three times.

“The state doesn’t have any money,” Heseler said.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore suggested they continue looking at working with Sarasoto to help get service to Lakewood Ranch.

Whitmore joined the commission meeting by telephone from her home, where she is recuperating from recent surgery.

In other action Tuesday, the commission:

n Reaffirmed its decision to publish requests for proposals for the operation of the concessions at Manatee and Coquina beaches.

n Approved a new procurement policy ordinance that updates the code to include new rules the Florida Legislature passed, as well as to include a “green” clause, where staff is required to consider issues of sustainability, resource preservation and waste reduction when writing procurement standards and procedures.

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