GULFPORT — A few people got left out in residents' calls to save city workers during recent budget cuts: the trolley drivers.
As residents beseeched City Council to save the dispatchers — which it didn't — and to save the parks workers — which it did — trolley driver John Miller and the three other part-time drivers continued doing their jobs even though they suspected their days were numbered.
They were right.
The trolley that had been making a loop every hour, carrying people from Gulfport to St. Pete Beach and back again, seven days a week for three years made its final run last week, the day the Pinellas Suncoast Transportation Authority/Florida Department of Transportation grant ran out of funds.
The original plan was that PSTA would take over operation of the trolley after the grant expired, but it doesn't have the funding to support the route, which is used by about 600 riders a week, said City Manager Jim O'Reilly.
So, three drivers were let go.
Brian VanSlyke, who had been coordinating the drivers, will be retained in his part-time capacity, said Bob Williams, leisure services supervisor. Among his duties will be driving Gulfport's free trolley that runs Friday and Saturday nights.
While it was a sad day for trolley riders, they have options. They'll have to take as many as three buses to travel the 5 miles the trolley traverses, but they still can get there.
On the other hand, Miller, a resident of Gulfport, has no options. There aren't a lot of jobs for trolley drivers who haven't missed a day of work in two years.
Not many for drivers who are his age, either.
"I'm 72 but I'm not ready to retire," Miller said. "I never missed a day's work, and if they need someone to work overtime, I'm there. Johnny-on-the-spot.
"There's age discrimination," he said matter-of-factly without a hint of bitterness. "No one wants to hire someone my age; they're afraid we'll drop dead.
"I was hoping they had a spot open somewhere in the city, but I don't know. I might have to go on unemployment for the first time in my life," Miller said.
There are no jobs right now, Williams said, but there might be in the future.
The turquoise trolley with pink flamingos splashed down the length of both sides has come under fire almost from the day it was conceived.
Critics say it doesn't have enough riders.
Proponents of the trolley say it's a great perk and a nice thing to do, especially for elderly residents who used it to go shopping or to doctor's appointments.
"I would like to see somebody keep it, if even for a year at a time," Miller said.
Under terms of the grant, PSTA provided the trolley and Gulfport provided its driver, maintenance and fuel.
"It would be better if we could have gotten a newer trolley from PSTA that wouldn't break down all the time," Miller said.
Ironically, he said that from the driver's seat of Gulfport's red and green trolley, which was in service that day because the turquoise trolley had broken down.