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Free transit service brings Anna Maria lots of goodwill


The city of Savannah, Ga., offers free water ferry, streetcar and shuttle service in its historic Old South district.

The fountain in Savannah
The Forsyth Park Fountain in Savannah, Ga., is one of  the tourist attractions in the city.

That's good news to supporters of Anna Maria Island's free trolley system, knowing that another tourist destination believes in free transportation.

"This system in Savannah is unique," said Bob Coffey, a founding member of the transportation program and general manager of Savannah's International Trade Center. "The purposes are to provide amenities to visitors as well as to reduce the congestion of vehicles."

A converted 1930 Melbourne streetcar travels over cobblestone River Street, which fronts the Savannah River and the Historic Savannah Walk. The clanging streetcar is a popular way to view limestone buildings constructed in the late 1700s.

Perhaps even more popular are shuttles packed with tourists eager to view the famed 20-by-20-square-block historic district of antebellum mansions made famous by the 1994 best-selling novel, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil".

"Tourists love our free transportation system," said Rick Jones, Savannah's mobility manager. "Sure, the economic times are tough, but we love this system."

An accommodation fee of $1 per occupied room, plus federal, state, county and city revenues, fund the system's $1.2 million budget.

"This structure is very stable," Coffey said. "We have been doing this since 2003, and it just gets more popular."

Locally the Anna Maria Island Trolley has been given a one-year stay of execution. Thanks to David Teitelbaum, a member of the Manatee County Tourist Development Council and a director of the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce, islanders have a chance to create funding sources to pay portions of the $900,000 budget.

"The Island Trolley is so important to the community," Teitelbaum said. "Tourists can choose to not rent a car. We hear so many stories of how visitors rave about our trolley."

The "Save Our Trolley" idea of Teitelbaum would include an island-wide, two-day festival in tourist season patterned after the successful Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. Teitelbaum is going to lean on his business associates to pay for advertisements or to sponsor a trolley.

The Savannah waterfront
The Savannah Riverfront in the evening. The city sees its free trolley system over cobblestone River Street, which fronts the Savannah River and the Historic Savannah Walk, as a way to provide amenities and reduce congestion.

County Commissioner John Chappie, a former Bradenton Beach mayor, personally will bird-dog the three island mayors in his pursuit that each city continues to budget $8,000 towards the trolley system.

"Whatever it takes, we will do it to keep our free trolley system," Chappie said.

From the jaws of defeat, the free trolley has gotten support from Manatee County Commissioners Carol Whitmore, John Chappie, Joe McClash and Gwendolyn Brown. That's four of the seven commissioners -- a majority. Plus, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker has said he supports a one-year extension of the free trolley system, allowing supporters to build funding sources to finance it.

The $900,000 free island trolley budget is presently funded with state and federal grants, excluding $100,000, which is paid with $8,000 from each of the three island cities, $26,000 from the county hotel bed tax and $50,000 from the county operating budget.

On one very hot morning in one very hot trolley, tourists wiped the perspiration off their foreheads while acclaiming the island trolley.

"This is just like home," said Berit Bjorsen of Bergen, Norway. "We love to ride the trolley. It adds so much flavor to the island." With wiggly twins in her lap, she paused, and then said, "It's like the island gave us a thank-you gift for coming to visit."

The trolley stops to pick up two passengers with wallets in their hands. "No cost. Free," the driver said. The tourists are stunned. "It's an amazing concept," said Bob Martinelli, visiting from South Bend, Ind.

Coincidentally, South Bend provides free public transportation for all students, faculty and staff of Notre Dame University. And in Colorado Springs, Colo., students ride free on their transit system.

How's that song go? The best things in life are free.


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