ST. PETERSBURG — And then there were no yellow bikes at Eckerd College.
It's not that you couldn't find the bright yellow bikes around the city. Senior Andrea Solazzo spotted some driving through St. Petersburg. There was even a report of one of the beach cruisers, which rolled out in 2004 as part of the college's free bicycle exchange program, as far south as Key West.
"One of my friends even saw one in Gainesville," said Solazzo, 22, a political science major.
Theft was not the only problem that brought the program down, school officials say. In late November, poor upkeep and even slovenly stewardship of the bikes led to the stockpiling of 230 broken bikes in a fenced area on campus. Solazzo and other students began calling it the "bicycle graveyard."
Dean of Student Affairs James J. Annarelli, however, refers to it as the "bicycle hospital." It was not until this week, however, that the hospital released its first round of patients: in partnership with a local bike shop, 50 of the bicycles were refurbished and returned to the campus.
It is part of a complete overhaul of the Yellow Bike program, which was intended to offer students a "green" way of getting around campus, a way of driving less and exercising more. Now, the private college, which prides itself on being a model of eco-friendly living, is pumping more money into the program with the hope of keeping it going. This year, about $30,000 is budgeted for new bikes, maintenance and to pay a campus intern involved in the program, school officials said.
"I'm a romantic about this, and I think it can work," said Annarelli, who helped create the Yellow Bike program five years ago. "These are all problems that give us as a community an opportunity to create teaching moments."
Several schools around the country have tried free bicycle exchange programs, but to date, none has been without problems, Annarelli said. Meanwhile, cities around the world that have been most successful with similar programs use card swiping systems that require users to return the bikes to secure stations.
When the Tampa Downtown Partnership tried bicycle sharing in 1997, 50 bright orange bikes that the organization put on the streets vanished. BikeGreen, an ambitious effort to bring bicycle sharing to downtown St. Petersburg, never got off the ground. Last fall, one of the founders said that 100 bikes had been stolen and about 15 were in circulation — available only for a $40 refundable fee.
At Eckerd, officials think they can be much more successful by making adjustments and not reinventing the wheel.
To start, the college is teaming with ABC Bicycle Shop in St. Petersburg to overhaul its current stable of single-speed bikes, which are outfitted with cruiser-style handlebars and coaster brakes. The shop will oversee a maintenance program, with the goal of students eventually taking over those responsibilities.
Rick Fidanzato, a college alumnus and owner of the bicycle store, said the current stock of bikes he found on campus recently was "just hammered" from abuse. One bicycle, he said, appeared to have been run over by an automobile. Most showed obvious signs of general neglect, he said.
In two weeks, the bike store will also roll out 50 new Trek-brand bikes to add to the 50 bikes that have already been refurbished. The new bikes will be sturdier, and eventually will replace the old stock of Atlas bikes. The goal is to have about 150 working bikes by spring, and rise back up to 250 in the near future.
Annarelli said that as much as 30 percent of the original bike stock was stolen. Most or all of the thefts, he said, are thought to have occurred after students took the bikes off campus to go shopping.
This time, the St. Petersburg Police Department is being informed of the serial numbers on all the bikes. A back entrance to the school will be open less frequently.
In addition, ABC is collaborating with an Oregon-based bicycle parts recycling company to reuse as much of the old bikes as possible. And Eckerd students are being reminded in their honor code that it all begins with how they treat and view the bikes.
Annarelli said that when the 50 refurbished bikes were ceremoniously unveiled this week, most were gone in 20 minutes.
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or Lperez@sptimes.com.