OCEAN CITY — Evoking a “health before wealth” mantra, the Ocean City Transportation Committee this week opted to forward a recommendation to the full council not to run the Boardwalk trams this summer.
Over the last couple of months, resort officials have been debating if and when to resume running the Boardwalk tram. Back in May, with COVID-19 still rampant and Gov. Larry Hogan’s stay-at-home and other directives still in place, the transportation committee debated the merits of running the Boardwalk tram at all this summer, regardless of what stage of the state’s recovery plan had been reached. It was quite literally a million-dollar question as the committee had to weigh the balance of social distancing and public safety against significant revenue losses for shutting down the quaint feature on the Boardwalk for generations.
The debate continued in June as Maryland moved from stage one to stage two of the recovery plan and more and more of the restrictions were relaxed. The thinking at that time was training could begin in mid-June and the tram service could resume around the beginning of July and still salvage the peak months of the summer season.
However, still uneasy about the ability to achieve social distancing on the tram itself, along with the forcing of people on the Boardwalk together as the tram passes had the committee postponing any decision for another month. On Tuesday, the transportation committee resumed the debate with an eye on beginning training in mid-July with a target start date for the service of July 29.
Maryland’s current COVID-19 directives for public transportation allow for essential riders with no other means transportation only. Public Works Director Hal Adkins explained the Boardwalk tram does not fit easily into any definition.
“We don’t feel the tram is an amusement ride,” he said. “We also don’t feel it’s an essential mode of transportation. If you consider it a shared-use operation, the staff and the riders would all have to wear masks and practice social distancing. We would also have plexiglass around the conductor to eliminate potential exposure.”
Each of the new Boardwalk tram coaches has a capacity of around 80 passengers. Running the tram at 50% capacity, for example, would reduce that number to around 40. Not running the tram at all in August and September would result in a loss of revenue of around $600,000. However, Ocean City is in line for federal grants through the CARES Act for transportation that could offset some of the losses.
“The purpose of running the tram is to provide a service, an amenity,” said Councilman Dennis Dare. “There wouldn’t really be a financial incentive to run it at this point.”
Councilman Mark Paddack said he had mixed feelings about moving forward with the tram for this summer.
“This is a tough decision,” he said. “It’s not really essential, it’s basically an added amenity. Is it worth doing as an added amusement on the Boardwalk for two months? I don’t want to operate at a loss. If we can get to a net zero from running the tram, that would be great.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said the town can’t always control the public’s behavior with regard to socially distancing and wearing masks, but there is an opportunity with the trams at half capacity to set an example.
“As far as COVID, there are a lot of things we can’t control,” he said. “We can control the tram with the capacity reductions and the mask requirements. I also have concerns about the tram, but I think there are some things we can control.”
Dare pointed out it remains uncertain where Maryland and Ocean City will be in the recovery plan by August, now less than a month away. Maryland’s key metrics continued to trend in the right direction this week, but there are still flare-ups in other areas including neighboring Delaware, for example.
“We don’t know what the situation will be in August,” he said. “Governor Hogan has been very conservative. I’m not sure public transportation will be opened up by then, or if we’re even near stage three.”
Meehan said there did not appear to be any urgency to moving Maryland further along in the recovery plan at this point.
“I spoke with Governor Hogan at length last week,” he said. “I think he is trying to keep us right where we are without loosening things up just yet.”
Dare also pointed out concerns about tram riders specifically, and much of the public in general, and the reluctance, or even belligerence to some degree, about wearing masks.
“My other concern is for our employees,” he said. “Not only for potential exposure to the virus, but having to provide that enforcement. Some people are very passionate about not wearing a mask and I’m not sure we need to provide a non-essential service and put people at risk.”
Dare also pointed out the challenges of running the trams down the crowded Boardwalk and the issues it creates with pushing people together. He said the town has already taken some public relations hits earlier in the summer about the crowds on the Boardwalk and adding the tram to the mix could contribute to that.
“The trams part the sea and force people on the Boardwalk to no distance physically,” he said. “Most aren’t wearing masks anyway. The tram could add to that visualization. There is already a perception for some that we’re putting wealth before health.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca pointed out the committee only makes recommendations and the final decision would be up to the full council.
“I’d like to hear input from all seven members,” he said. “I’m not sure we’re ready as a committee to make a recommendation.”
However, Councilman Mark Paddack agreed it was likely the right decision to put the brakes on the Boardwalk trams for this season and made a motion to that effect.
“I’ll make a motion to recommend suspending the operation for 2020,” he said. “I agree it comes down to a health before wealth decision.”
The voting members of the committee voted 3-1 with DeLuca opposed to send a recommendation to the full council to suspend the tram operation this summer. DeLuca pointed out he was not against shutting down the tram necessarily, but wanted the discussion to be held by the full council.