Ocean City Denied Grant To Help Fund Tram Replacements

OCEAN CITY — Resort officials are still exploring how best to replace the aging trams used on the Boardwalk and at Winterfest of Lights, but it now appears there will be no state or federal grant help with the potentially costly price tag.

For the last several months, the Transportation Committee has been exploring alternatives for repairing or replacing the city’s fleet of trams, which are nearing the end of their useful life. Refurbishing the trams to extend their life is one option under consideration, as are replacing them with new gasoline or electric models. Each option comes with its own benefits and, of course, price tags.

At the last meeting in May, committee members decided to explore a federal grant program for funding municipal transportation projects that feature low emissions. The grants come with a caveat, however. The federal grants passed through the Maryland Transit Authority (MTA) would only be made available for projects that serve a bonafide transportation need.

At the last meeting, it was learned the federal grants could fund up to 80 percent of the tram replacement cost, which could run as high as $4 million when everything was said and done. If the town was able to secure the grant funding, it could make a decision on the various replacement alternatives easier. However, Transit Director Mark Rickards reported on Tuesday the town’s grant application had been turned down, largely because it was uncertain the trams were a true transportation mode and not merely a tourism amenity.

“At our last meeting, we agreed to apply for a federal grant passed through the state for low emissions trams, but we got turned down,” he said. “They said it wasn’t eligible because trams don’t fit their criteria. We presented it to the MTA because we have to go through MTA to apply for federal grants.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said the news was disheartening because the federal grants could have offset a large amount of the funding for replacing the trams.

“I’m disappointed we’re not eligible for grants,” he said. “We believe the trams should be considered transportation, but they obviously thought otherwise.”

Rickards, however, continued to assert the Boardwalk trams were a bonafide transportation method and should be eligible for the grants.

“We call them trackless trains,” he said. “People use them to get up and down the Boardwalk from point A to point B. It’s a transportation mode regardless of what the MTA thinks.”

Adkins said the recent development with the grant application denial essentially left the town with two basic options for replacing the aging trams that are nearing the end of their useful life. With refurbishing considered a costly and uncertain alternative, it now appears the decision will come down to gasoline or electric trams.

“From our previous meetings, we have considered refurbishing the existing trams off the table because of the expense and all the unknowns,” he said. “Now that the grant is off the table too, we’re down to deciding between the gas trams and the electric trams. Diesel has also been taken off the table because of the exhaust and fumes.”

That essentially leaves two options on the table including new gasoline-powered trams or new electric-powered trams and each comes with benefits and drawbacks. Replacing the trams with electric engines would cost an estimated $4.4 million, while going the traditional gasoline route would come with an estimated $3 million price tag.

There are long-term advantages to electric trams, however. For example, they would be charged by batteries with a 10-year useful life and an estimated annual cost of charging at around $5,000 each for the eight trams. The electric trams would also result in minimal maintenance and labor costs compared to the gasoline trams.

In addition, the electric models under consideration have capacity for 80 passengers, while the gas-powered trams have capacity for 69 passengers. From an environmental and visitor experience standpoint, the electric trams would have zero tailpipe emissions and the only noise created would be the tires on the Boardwalk.

By comparison, the gas-powered option comes in considerably lower in upfront costs, but has higher long-term fuel, maintenance and labor costs. The gas-powered trams would have an estimated five-year average $23,900 cost for fuel. The 10-year estimate for gas-powered trams for fuel, maintenance and parts comes in at $939,000 compared to the estimated $250,000 for the electric trams.

In the end, the committee decided to have the procurement department craft a request for proposal for both the electric and gasoline options in a sort of fact-finding mission to help determine the costs of both. The RFP is not a commitment to either option, but merely exploratory to help make the decision easier.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.