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Longboat trolley receives funding

MANATEE -- The town of Longboat Key has picked up the final fare to keep the trolley serving the barrier island for at least one more year.

But one island official told Manatee County commissioners on Tuesday the town realizes plenty of work remains to make the shoreline transit service viable past 2011.

The Longboat Key Town Commission voted Monday night to pay the remaining $41,000 needed to maintain the bus route that runs from Coquina Beach in Manatee County to downtown Sarasota.

The pledge completes a $541,000 partnership between Longboat Key and the transit authorities in Manatee and Sarasota counties to operate the trolley through next year.

But the funding plan includes a reduction in service that will result in fewer hours of operation and longer waits, further stressing a service that administrators of both counties say is not cost-effective because of low ridership.

“We’ve got this thing saved for a while,” Longboat Key Vice Mayor Jim Brown told county commissioners. “I would hope we would set aside an opportunity to get a group together and talk about options.”

The route costs Manatee County’s transit system $7.01 per passenger trip and Sarasota County’s transit system $9 per passenger trip, making it by far the most expensive route in either system, according to figures released by each county.

Longboat Key officials are scheduled to re-evaluate the service in the spring, and Manatee County will reconsider its support when the next budget cycle comes around next fall.

“When I go to put another budget together, we’ll have another discussion about ridership,” County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said. “In a downward push for our revenues, we have to analyze every expenditure we have.”

Brown said Longboat Key has formed a committee of government, business and citizen representatives to discuss additional financial support for the trolley and stepping up marketing efforts.

“It’s nice to see when people have an asset in their community they have not appreciated that is threatened, they come together,” he said.

Starting Jan. 1, the trolley will run hourly from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, except six holidays, compared to the current 30-minute routes that run from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, except two holidays.

The service costs 75 cents, 35 cents for seniors, but a random survey of riders indicated they would be willing to pay more to maintain the service, Brown said.

It is quite a comeback for the trolley, especially in Manatee County.

Until this summer, a Florida Department of Transportation grant covered half of Manatee County’s contribution. During budget talks, county staff proposed ending support of the service Oct. 1.

But after a spirited lobbying effort by Longboat Key leaders, both Manatee and Sarasota counties agreed to fund the trolley through the end of this year in an effort to find a solution.

Then, during a Nov. 2 joint session, Sarasota County and Manatee County commissioners agreed to pay $300,000 and $200,000, respectively, to pay for the service through next year.

That left Longboat Key to pick up the remaining $41,000 that Manatee County Area Transit said it would cost to run the Manatee portion of the route.

“It’s one of those days you throw a Hail Mary pass, and it works,” county Commissioner Joe McClash said.

County Commissioner Carol Whitmore encouraged Longboat Key to work with business leaders there to secure additional funding to reinstate the 30-minute route length.

“Don’t give up the ship if you notice the ridership is going down,” she said.

Commission Chairwoman Donna Hayes, an ardent trolley opponent, has not been convinced the service will survive.

“All I have to say to you is ridership and marketing is the key to this,” she said to Brown.