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Funding for Old Town Trams extended

BRADENTON BEACH – The Old Town Trams may be rolling just a little bit longer.

The Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) voted at its Aug. 15 meeting to remove the $52,000 subsidization for the free ride service from its 2023-24 budget. However, after much debate about the necessity of the trams at a Sept. 6 CRA meeting, a compromise was reached. Members voted unanimously to fund the tram, with conditions, until the end of this year.

“This was temporary until it could stand on its own,” Mayor John Chappie said. “I don’t mind helping people and getting people started, but for a limited time.”

Launched as a pilot program in November 2020, the Old Town Trams were put in place to help address the lack of parking on and around Bridge Street. The trams are a free park-and-ride shuttle service in the CRA district (from the Cortez Bridge to Fifth Street South) using two electric golf carts.

“I don’t think any of us like to see it go away because it does provide some type of service,” Chappie said. “The problem is, who’s paying for it? And what kind of involvement will there be from businesses? That’s what the service is there for.”

The service is provided by the Sarasota-based Easy Parking Group, owned by Joshua LaRose. It is supported by the CRA at a cost of $52,000 per year and is partially funded by advertising sales.

LaRose attended the Sept. 6 meeting and offered concessions to help defray some of the costs to the city.

“The pilot program didn’t work out and we need to terminate the pilot program,” CRA member David Bell said. “I think what we need to do is see what Tram 2.0 looks like.”

Bell asked LaRose to tell the board what he thought would make it successful.

“Cutting out of season to the weekends is a possibility,” LaRose said. He also offered to cut service on slower days, possibly Monday and Tuesday.

LaRose said the profit margin for the tram service is minimal.

“I might make $1,000 a month, if that sometimes,” he said. “I’m not complaining. You came out and wanted this service.”

LaRose said that upkeep on the carts is expensive, and with the ongoing sewer construction he has had to replace tires multiple times. He also said that insurance is costly at $1,100 per month.

CRA member Jan Vosburgh, who has been a vocal opponent of funding the tram, said the tram is unnecessary, especially given the construction in the area.

“If we could privatize it, we could use that money to do a lot of things,” CRA member Ralph Cole said.

“There needs to be a designated route and stick with the timing needed between different stops, designated times, designated stops, the signage and upkeep on the carts. I’ve heard a few people complain about the upkeep and how they look,” Chappie said.

“Once the construction is done, I always thought there should be a dedicated route,” CRA member Jake Spooner said.

“This isn’t a free ride, we’re giving you so much money as a temporary thing and we want you to be able to make it on your own,” Chappie said to LaRose.

Chappie suggested taking a hiatus for several months to see if LaRose can get support from local businesses during that time. Bell disagreed and said it would be too hard to start again after a break. Cole said if the tram were stopped for a hiatus, advertisers would be lost.

“We need to leave our options open,” Chappie said. “Do we want to set aside a certain amount of money for some type of tram service? We still have a little time, not much. We have to figure out the budget process and set aside a few dollars to support this in some way to help it move along.”

CRA members agreed that participation and support from local businesses would be desirable and necessary to keep the trams going.

“Merchants aren’t equally participating and contributing,” City Attorney Ricinda Perry said.

One local business owner asked for a balance.

“The city planned the street (Bridge Street) that way with no parking, the city agreed to put businesses in there with no parking,” Silver Resorts owner Angela Rodocker said. “There is a balance that has to be looked at if we want that to continue to thrive. I don’t think it looks like what it looks like right now. Certainly not $50,000.”

The tram is funded by the CRA until October.

“We could fund it for a few more months,” Cole said.

Contractually the city is on the hook for over $104,000 if the advertisers leave, Perry said. She also said $10,000 in funds could be reallocated for several months’ extension.

“Now we put it out there, and people realize we don’t want to fund it anymore,” Cole said.

“I think a clear message has been sent, ‘Time’s up,’ Chappie said. “If we can figure out how to make it better, ok and if we can’t then that’s it.”

A motion to fund and operate the tram service until Dec. 31 passed unanimously.

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