CLEARWATER — Electric people-movers could soon arrive at doorsteps as part of a Jolley Trolley expansion into the neighborhoods of north Pinellas County.
Called "circulators," the 12-seat minibuses could whisk riders to the Jolley Trolley's shuttle stops across Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs, beginning this fall.
Like taxis, the open-air circulators would take orders, picking up callers curbside as long as they were within three-fourths of a mile of the trolley's route.
But unlike taxis, the minibuses could handle large groups and charge much less: about $2 per ride, with bundle prices for trolley fares.
Trolley executive director Bob Longenecker calls circulators the future of public transit, striking at nonriders' top excuse for not using public transit: that bus stops are too far away.
But competitors are crying foul at the trolley's newest move, pointing out that Longenecker had railed against a similar electric-shuttle service as too dangerous to ride.
"He has expended so much energy calling us illegal," said Jason Gibertoni, a co-founder of Florida Free Rides, a tips-encouraged beach shuttle. Now "he's more or less ripping off our business plan."
Other public transit lines in Tampa Bay are offering more circulators than ever to help convince drivers to hang up their keys. Smaller and cheaper to run, they can snake into tight neighborhood streets where larger buses can't go.
Hillsborough County's bus system already runs a fleet of on-demand Flex vans, costing 85 cents per trip. And the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority plans to start running minibuses in East Lake, Oldsmar and Palm Harbor in October.
But the Jolley Trolley's 15 planned circulators will mark Pinellas' biggest venture yet into the unproven market. The new fleet is already drawing questions of competition and safety.
Among the first to question use of electric shuttles was Longenecker himself. Speaking about Florida Free Rides' smaller beach carts, he told the Times in February, "What kind of public safety are we going to provide for people who visit our area? ... There's plenty of documentation that these vehicles are not geared for commercial use."
His testimony helped usher in new regulations for pedicabs, low-speed vehicles and electric carts passed in March by the Clearwater City Council. Now Longenecker has changed his tune, saying the carts have been proven safe for riders over the last year.
"I'll be honest, I was saying I didn't think they were safe," Longenecker said. But Free Rides has "proven that, at least in the under-35 mph zones, they have not had a problem with accidents. I give them a lot of credit for being safe."
Over the last year, Jolley Trolley shuttles have been involved in two crashes, both on Memorial Causeway and not the fault of the trolley, police said. Free Rides carts have been involved in no crashes.
Gibertoni called Longenecker's reversal "highly hypocritical," pledging to fight the Jolley Trolley's expansion with legal action. Founded last year, the company relies on tips and advertising on its four electric carts.
Longenecker said the Jolley Trolley's circulators would be different, in that they would accommodate wheelchairs and tie into the trolley lines. A prototype sketch of a circulator resembles the red-and-yellow Jolley Trolley, with lights, seat belts and outside ads.
It's unclear, though, whether the Jolley Trolley's circulators would be street legal. Rob Surette, a Clearwater assistant city attorney, said the low-speed vehicles must weigh less than 3,000 pounds to meet federal law. With Free Rides' six-seaters weighing nearly 2,800 pounds, it's highly likely the Jolley Trolley's 12-seat circulator would weigh too much.
The Trolley's beach and mainland routes, Longenecker said, are seeing some of their best months to date, with more than 30,000 passengers in March — about a 20 percent increase.
Trolley leaders are also looking into high-tech upgrades, like real-time bus tracking and a mobile-phone app.
But competitors worry the new line could put taxis and tip-encouraged carts out of business. Though fares and advertising pay up to 40 percent of the Jolley Trolley's expenses, the service receives $500,000 a year in city and PSTA grants.
"I can't help feeling like we're competing against all of Pinellas County government," Gibertoni said. "This is an all-out assault on private transportation."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or email@example.com. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.