Bethesda to replace its popular trolley cars

By Sarah Gantz
The Gazette
Thursday, October 14, 2010

Aidan Lapierre, 14, and his friends enjoy riding around on the Bethesda Circulator with no destination in mind.

"I get on because it looks like a trolley," the Bethesda teen said. "It's more fun,"

Aidan usually has to go straight home after school, but on Fridays, he and his friends like to hop on the trolley car that provides free rides and travel around until they come across an appealing activity. But next summer, Aidan, his friends and the 1,000 or so other daily passengers of the Bethesda Circulator will be picked up by a new vehicle.

Officials will replace Bethesda's three trolleys -- which are designed to look old-fashioned, although they were built in 2006 -- by high-velocity buses that look more like the District's sleek circulators than something out a San Franciscan memory.

Officials said it is necessary to provide a circulator service that is more reliable than the trolleys, which break down often and are difficult to repair, said Stephanie Coppula, a spokeswoman for the Bethesda Urban Partnership.

The trolleys were introduced in Bethesda as part of Montgomery County's Ride On service in 1999. Bethesda Urban Partnership, the private-public agency that maintains downtown Bethesda, took over management of the fleet in 2006, when the county hinted at discontinuing the service.

The change will come at the end of the partnership's four-year contract with RMA Worldwide Chauffeured Transportation, a Rockville-based management company that owns and operates the trolleys. The company will manage the new buses, under a four-year contract with Bethesda Urban Partnership.

The partnership was created by the county in 1994 and is managed by a board of directors made up of 10 Bethesda residents, business owners and developers, and one nonvoting county representative. Members are appointed by the county executive for three-year terms. The board approved the circulator change this year.

"The thing we learned that people really want is just a consistent, reliable vehicle," Coppula said.

When a trolley would break down, RMA would substitute a bus to run the route in its place. But people looking for a trolley often did not recognize the bus as their ride and would call the agency, asking why the circulator was not in service that day.

RMA covered the cost of all trolley repairs, as included in BUP's contract, Coppula said.

The trolleys require custom parts that often are difficult to obtain, which means they are out of commission for longer than a bus would be, said Kevin Toliver, who manages the trolleys for RMA.

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