OCEAN CITY — The future of the Boardwalk tram this summer remains in limbo this week after the Transportation Committee again deferred a decision until the pandemic picture becomes clearer.
During its meeting in early May, the Transportation Committee debated the merits of running the Boardwalk tram at all this summer, regardless of what stage the state’s recovery plan had been reached. It was quite literally almost a million-dollar question as the committee weighed the balance of social distancing and public safety against significant revenue losses for shutting down the quaint feature on the Boardwalk for generations.
At that early May meeting, the committee chose to table the debate and revisit the tram issue at its June meeting when the picture became clearer and the state’s recovery plan had moved into its early stages. The plan was to meet again in early June, which happened this week, and possibly get the training started in mid-June with a target deployment date for the Boardwalk tram at the end of June.
This week, after more debate, the same schedule has been moved back a month with a mid-July target date for training and soft opening with full deployment by the end of July. The committee will meet again in early July to make a recommendation on salvaging at least two of the biggest months of the summer season in August and September.
When the committee met in May, Gov. Larry Hogan had not yet lifted stay-at-home orders and instituted early phases of stage one of his recovery plan. In the weeks since, Hogan has moved the state into stage one and then a hybrid form of stage one with stage two in the offing as Maryland’s numbers continue to go down.
Under the current recovery stage, Hogan is still discouraging the use of public transportation, although the Boardwalk tram falls more under the definition of an amusement. In either case, both public transportation and amusements do not fall under the current recovery stage, making a decision on the Boardwalk tram for this summer even more challenging, according to Mayor Rick Meehan.
Meehan said on Tuesday that Ocean City, fairly or not, has already taken some public perception hits on its social distancing efforts including pictures of a crowded Boardwalk picked up on by national media.
“Right now, the governor is discouraging people from using public transportation and there are no clear guidelines on amusements, so it’s kind of in limbo,” he said. “I don’t think we want a picture of a crowded tram riding down a crowded Boardwalk on the cover of the New York Times right now.”
City Manager Doug Miller said the tram does not fit easily into any one definition in Hogan’s recovery plan.
“It’s a gray area,” he said. “We consider it an amusement for our purposes, but it could fall under transportation. If it’s an amusement, that doesn’t come until stage three.”
Another issue is getting the staff trained and tested if and when tram gets the green light to resume operations. Operations Manager Steve Bartlett said in a normal year it takes 50 or so crewmembers to run the tram on a daily basis. Bartlett said he currently has 44 operators on hand, some new and some returning, but none of them are trained and certified today.
“At this moment, we have zero drivers and zero conductors,” he said. “We have 44 waiting, but everybody would have to get drug tested again because their old tests expired. I do have the people, just not any people ready to go.”
Beyond the ongoing social distancing and physical distancing issues is the financial side of the tram. Budget Manager Jennie Knapp said if the Boardwalk tram is lost for July, August and September, the city stands to lose an estimated $800,000 in revenue. If the proposed plan on the table for a late July start for the tram can be achieved, about $500,000 of that potential loss could be avoided.
Councilman Tony DeLuca voiced concern about the perceived slow pace of the state’s recovery and laid out a plan to salvage part of the season based on Knapp’s estimates.
“I really thought we’d be in stage two by now and that has kind of thrown us off,” he said. “To be on the safe side, we should plan on training in mid-July and deploy on July 29. We could still salvage August and September.”
Councilman Dennis Dare agreed with the potential public perception hit the city could take for running the tram on an already crowded Boardwalk.
In the end, the committee voted unanimously to revisit the issue at its meeting next month, which will be moved ahead to July 7. The committee could then forward a recommendation to the Mayor and Council for the July 14 work session, which could then jumpstart the training and soft opening phase by mid-July with a target reopening date of July 29.