CLEARWATER — With spring break crowds picking up, city leaders still want a beach parking garage, but they're also ready to talk about another way to help beachgoers get to the sand.
One idea is a shuttle service, combined with mainland parking and an express shuttle lane to the beach.
It's a very preliminary idea, Mayor Frank Hibbard said Thursday. But with beach traffic backed up during spring break, on weekends and on holidays, the city needs to do something to get visitors from the mainland to the beach quicker.
"The only way to get people out of their cars is to meet two criteria," Hibbard said. "You have to make it less expensive and it has to be faster."
During the tourist season, roughly 2,000 cars a day can stretch across the 3.5-mile run from the beach roundabout to Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, making for long trips and major headaches.
Here's what some city officials are thinking about to solve that problem:
Work out a plan with Pinellas County government to use its three-level, 498-space parking garage across from the County Courthouse in downtown Clearwater. Then build a third lane on the south side of the Memorial Causeway, the main traffic artery to the beach. This new lane would be used only by the shuttle buses. The city also would install a traffic signal to let the buses change lanes, drop off visitors and navigate the roundabout.
The price tag, including four new buses? Probably about $5-million to $6-million.
Hibbard said he hopes to use part of $250,000 in federal funds earmarked for use by the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization to pay for a feasibility study to see whether the shuttle plan would work.
The idea probably will be discussed during Monday's City Council work session. A lot of details would need to be worked out, including the cost of operating the service, the fare for riding the shuttle and the fee, if any, to park.
Hibbard, the organization's chairman, said the city has pretty much ruled out the occasionally discussed plan to build light rail from the mainland to the beach — a project that transportation experts say could cost $80-million.
"The shuttle is more reasonable and more immediate," he said.
The mayor said the city is still looking into building a parking garage on the beach, but feels that a shuttle service will supplement the garage. He added that it would also create "a synergy between the downtown and the beach."
By making parking available and creating a designated lane for the shuttle, the new service could offer a level of convenience that wasn't available with the Jolley Trolley alone.
Last year, the city decided to cut its subsidy for the beach trolley, which runs along Sand Key and the beach, and eliminate a run from the beach over to the mainland. That leg of the route had few riders.
Dave Del Monte, manager of lease management division with the county, said he believes the county and city can work out a deal to make beachgoer parking available on weekends and holidays.
But the sides haven't begun any serious discussions yet.
"It's all very, very preliminary, but the county and the city have a history of cooperating together on parking needs in the downtown and we open the garage up … when they have major events," Del Monte said.
Beach resident and Councilman Paul Gibson said the new garage-with-shuttle proposal would be "a perfect fit, since the parking garage is underutilized when the city needs it most."
Others, though, aren't so sure.
Brenda Henderson, who works for Parasail City on the beach, said "it might help if the city can keep people out of traffic."
But she's not entirely sold on the idea.
"I don't know if it will really be used because people are going to have baby strollers, coolers, beach chairs, whatever, and it's not all going to fit" on a shuttle, she said. "You know, I bet they won't use it."
Mike Donila can be reached at (727) 445-4160 or mdonila@sptimes.