Ads to fill trolley funding gap
Written by John Charles Robbins on December 18, 2013
Miami’s popular trolley system is costing more money to operate than expected, and to help offset those operational costs city officials are willing to allow some advertising on the vehicles.
One Miami city commissioner said he’d hold his nose and vote yes to approve advertising on the sides of the “cute” people movers with wheels if it’ll help with the bottom line.
Commissioners all seem to love the free trolleys, and want to somehow keep them free.
That may prove more difficult as operating costs begin to swell, including the dollars needed to maintain and replace the trolleys as they age, officials were told Dec. 12.
Last week, the city commission approved a pilot program of ads for the trolleys, a move that will be monitored and tracked to see if it impacts the popularity of the trolleys. The vote saw commissioners approve an agreement with Van Wagner Miami LLC to handle the advertising for two years with options to renew.
In November 2011, the commission approved an agreement with the county that laid the framework for the trolley system. In the agreement, Miami commissioners voted for the system to be free, though they could still add a future fee structure.
At its inception, commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff opposed free service, saying then that fees would help avoid loiterers and help keep the trolleys clean.
Chairman Sarnoff, at last week’s meeting, admitted he’s a convert to the free ride concept. “I’m now a supporter of free trolleys,” Mr. Sarnoff said with a smile.
In an imperfect world, advertising on the trolleys can be “a money source” to help keep the trolleys free, said Mr. Sarnoff.
Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo spoke about the popular trolley system and its operational costs at last week’s meeting.
Currently, about $2.36 million is allocated to operate the trolleys for a year. However, existing operating costs are closer to $3.8 million, according to numbers Ms. Bravo provided.
Advertising on the trolleys is expected to bring in about $425,000 a year to the city.
Commissioner Frank Carollo mentioned the notable difference between revenue and expenses, and said unfortunately it means looking for cost reductions and efficiencies in how the system is run.
“I was adamant they be free,” Mr. Carollo said.
He spoke of the popularity of the trolleys, which have been “packed” in Coral Way and other areas of the city.
“I don’t like the advertisement. However, if it brings in revenue… I may have to bite my tongue and do it,” said Mr. Carollo. “I can count very well and [we will have to] subsidize it one way or the other.”
Commissioner Francis Suarez suggested tracking ridership after the ads are in place to see if advertising causes a drop in passengers.
“I agree [with other commissioners], part of the charm is the look [of the trolleys]… but we knew judgment day would come,” Mr. Suarez said, in reference to finding ways to help pay for the service.
Other cost factors to consider down the road are establishing a replacement program to retire older trolleys and upgrade the rubber-tired fleet. Ms. Bravo told commissioners they may have to look at replacements in three to five years.