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The Trolley of Paradise


Island Trolley

Island Trolley driver Bill Brown greets

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore.

The Island Trolley creaks to a halt, the door swishes open and two women climb aboard, and are welcomed by Bill Brown, trolley driver extraordinaire.

"Good morning" says Bill, a smile playing upon his face, with its Hulk Hogan mustache spreading across his rosy cheeks. "We'll make room for you lovely ladies."

A jolly troupe of tourists and natives. The Trolley is maxed out. It's standing room only, but not to worry. A boy, no older than 8, offers his seat to a lady using a walker.

Chris and Patty from Bradenton Beach climb aboard. Bill asks how her ailment is, but before she's able to answer, Bill is navigating around a car determined to block Gulf Drive.

Two men sitting up front suddenly start to sing "Lucille" to a startled and appreciative audience. The songbirds are regulars of Bill, who he calls Chris from Ohio and John the Baptist. After a few stanzas, the duet ends as quickly as it began. The Trolley chugs along; it's a movable feast of song and joy.

A squeaky brake announces the arrival of four Island Rats carrying surfboards bigger than they are. "Hi, Grandpa," one of the lads shouts out to 70-year-old Brown, who gives out a hearty laugh to the blond Adonis, destined for girls, waves and breakfast.

Wait a minute. There's Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore shaking hands with Bill Brown. Whitmore is an advocate for the free Island Trolley system, and fought for four years to get the Trolley rolling in 2002.

"The Trolley serves to relieve the congestion on the Island's roads," Whitmore says. "It is very efficient, plus it is an added experience for tourists who visit our island."

Whitmore said she discovered the wonders of mass transit when she visited Europe with her husband, Andre. "I couldn't believe how well it worked. I met so many people there who never owned a car. I began thinking that's what we need to do for the Island and the country."

But with knives out to gut more county programs, Whitmore is fighting a battle to keep free Trolley rides. "These visitors already pay a 4-cent tourist tax," she said. "The Trolley is an Island experience that will be lost by charging. Just recently the Trolley system carried over 4,000 riders in one day. Now imagine if just a quarter of them drove instead of rode. What congestion."

Last year, 455,755 passengers rode the Island Trolley.

However, with The Great Recession deepening, there's less money. Manatee County Commissioner Donna Hayes believes the Island Trolley needs to tax riders to use it, just as Sarasota County now does.

"The Island Trolley has done wonderfully," Hayes said. "But we are going to have to charge riders, just like those workers using the bus have to pay. It's not going to hurt tourism out on the Island if we charge them to ride the Trolley."

Since the Trolley system began six years ago, Bill Brown has been driving the hourlong circuit around the Island. Friends make a visit with Bill a part of their day, peppering him with questions on the best spots to dine, swim or lollygag.

"I meet a lot of nice people," Bill says. "I love my job, and I can't wait to get behind the wheel in the morning. I try to have my passengers have a good day and great ride."

MCAT Director Ralf Heseler is a fan of Bill Brown. "We are so fortunate to have such a dedicated employee," Heseler says.

How does Bill keep his cool all the while maneuvering his diesel behemoth around rude drivers and riders? Maybe it's being a Baptist minister for 30 years that cultivated an understanding of individuals' feats and follies. Being married to Donna for 45 years and having two living children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren certainly has taught Bill compassion that is so evident in his calm demeanor.

The Trolley is full of tourists admiring the sun melt into the Gulf. The gaiety is infectious. Strangers sharing the joy of a tropical evening. A Babel of French, German, Spanish and English express wonderment at a sunset. We know the sun comes up and goes down each day. And we know, the prosaic is poetic.


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