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A Streetcar Named Disaster?

Merchants fume that the free trolley service whisks customers away.

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Every 15 minutes a trolley loaded with potential customers glides by Nickell's & Scheffler, a lunchtime favorite on Upper King Street. But those who take the free trolley service from the Metro station to the waterfront may never get a chance to taste the shrimp etouffee that was on the menu one recent Friday. That infuriates chef Louis Nickell, who said the city should find a way to actively encourage people to get off the trolley instead of taking the free ride all the way to Union Street.

"There goes one now," Nickell said, his voice rising in agitation. "It’s full of people, and I’m not getting any business from it."

Since the city launched the $1-million-a-year trolley service in April, ridership has steadily increased as the distinctive crimson vehicles amble up and down the King Street corridor. During the first week of service, the trolleys had 8,000 boarders. The next week it had 9,000 riders. By the third week, boarding had moved to13,000 individuals. That accounts for well more than 40,000 users during the first month alone. Yet many King Street merchants on Upper King Street say the trolley service had decimated their business by shuttling their customers toward the waterfront.

"People are like cattle, and they’ll get on the trolley and take it all the way to the waterfront," he said. "Somebody should find a way to make them get off."

<b>CITY OFFICIALS</b> say they want trolley passengers to know about Alexandria’s extensive history and varied merchants. That’s why the Alexandria Visitors and Convention Association worked with the Office of Historic Alexandria to craft a script for an audio recording that will soon be broadcast on all the King Street trolleys. The audio recordings have already been piloted on some trolleys, and all vehicles are expected to be fully equipped by the time two additional vehicles arrive next month.

"It’s designed to encourage people to hop on and hop off," said Stephanie Brown, president of the association. "At this point, we are anxious to see if the audio makes a difference."

Each recording is separated into two distinct parts: a history component and a promotional pitch for merchants in the area near the stop. Four different scripts have been programmed for the history component, which will feature Revolutionary War, the Civil War, archeology and African-American history. They can be used interchangeably and will be paired with a standardized script that will announce the kinds of merchants that are within walking distance.

"We are not going to be mentioning any specific businesses in the audio recordings," said Brown. "The most we have is 30 seconds between stops, and it would be logistically impossible to mention every store and restaurant located between stops."

<b>EVEN AS THE</b> trolleys are outfitted with audio recordings, businesses are becoming increasingly hostile to the idea that the free shuttle service was such a good idea in the first place. With the increased amount of tourist traffic, many say they have not seen the gains they anticipated, and the trolley service has become a source of frustration as sales dwindle.

"I think the trolley service has diminished the foot traffic of people walking by our store," said Carla Clarke, assistant manager of Today’s Cargo, which recently moved from the 300 block of Cameron Street to the 1100 block of King Street. "We are definitely not seeing the number of tourists that we saw last year."

Not all the merchants on Upper King Street are opposed to the trolley. Arts Afire owner Joe Edgerton said he’s had more customers this year than any other previous year, an increase he said the trolley service has facilitated by easing navigation through Old Town. Edgerton said that once the audio function has been fully enabled, more people might be enticed to get off in an area of Upper King Street the recorded script calls "Uptown Old Town."

"Half of the people you see on the trolley are Alexandria residents taking it for the free ride," said Edgerton. "How could I be opposed to the trolley when I’ve got more people coming into the gallery than ever before?"