DUNEDIN — The Clearwater Beach Jolley Trolley, which was nearly bankrupted last year by budget cuts, could soon see new life on the mainland.
Transit planners have pushed to expand the Trolley's beachside loop into the downtowns of Clearwater and Dunedin, with hopes it could lead tourists to sights and shops further inland. The new route could expand by Thanksgiving, just in time for snowbird season.
The Trolley, a fleet of nine open-air shuttles painted red and yellow and slathered in ads, runs a beachgoer-friendly loop from Bay Park on Sand Key to the Palm Pavilion on Bay Esplanade on Clearwater Beach.
The new one-hour route would cross the Memorial Causeway, ride through downtown Clearwater onto Edgewater Drive and loop through downtown Dunedin.
"I think it's a real win for north county," said Julie Ward Bujalski, a Dunedin commissioner and board member for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, or PSTA. "Businesses are hurting, and whatever we can try to do to bring people into our communities is a good thing."
The obstacle now is cash. The not-for-profit Trolley balances its budget with fare-box revenues, bus-side advertising, charters for weddings and private parties, and subsidies from Clearwater and the PSTA. To run the Trolley on the mainland as planners hope — Fridays through Sundays, from 10 a.m. to midnight — the expanded route would cost another $150,000 a year.
Trolley fares are $1.75 a ride, $4 a day or $20 a week, and Trolley riders can use their passes on county buses as well. But fare revenue covers only a small sliver of the Trolley's gas, insurance and employment bills, which leaves a large chunk dependent on external funding.
Trolley executive director Bob Longenecker said the new route has already begun to collect commitments. The Clearwater Downtown Development Board pledged $16,000 a year. The PSTA could add on another $50,000 to $100,000, said executive director Tim Garling. The Dunedin commission could soon vote to deposit its own share, Bujalski said. If other cities opt in, or if planners win any federal or state transportation grants, the expansion would be more than fully funded.
The idea of the expanded route, Bujalski said, launched two years ago from downtown Dunedin business leaders who were looking for a way to funnel visitors and vacationers closer to home. Representatives from Dunedin and Clearwater merchant groups and chambers of commerce climbed quickly onboard expanding the Trolley, pushing the added bonus that drivers could guide curious tourists toward local businesses.
"The drivers are like their own little mini-concierges," Bujalski said.
The Trolley, which relied heavily on Clearwater's $150,000 subsidy, faced closure last year during the city's tight budget talks. The PSTA stepped in with a large pledge that was matched by Clearwater and renewed this week for $134,000.
Planners say if all goes well, the Trolley could find its way headed to Honeymoon Island, Palm Harbor or the sponge docks and antique district of Tarpon Springs. Mark Lecouris, the city manager of Tarpon Springs, said the city would consider pitching in for the project if it proved worth the cost.
Planners say public transit ridership has boomed in recent months. More than 1 million commuters ride a county bus each month, a 7 percent growth over last fiscal year, Garling said. The Trolley, Longenecker said, is on course to carry 140,000 passengers this fiscal year — more than double last year's ridership.
"It looks pretty promising," Longenecker said. "Our next step is waiting on secured funding ... and then we're ready to roll."
Contact Drew Harwell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.