CLEARWATER — There's a new Jolley Trolley on the roads. It looks like the other trolleys — historic appearance, oak trim. But this unique trolley has one set of wheels on the ground and the other rolling toward the future.
It's the first Jolley Trolley with air conditioning. Up until now, the trolleys haven't had AC because their engines had power problems when air conditioners were hooked up to them.
"What makes this trolley unique is, most trolleys have air conditioners attached to the engine," said Bob Longenecker, executive director of the Jolley Trolley organization. "We designed a generator to power the air conditioner, separate from the engine."
Another design change put the wheelchair lift in the rear of the trolley. But having the A/C run on a generator allowed for A/C units to go on the rooftop. Plus the design allowed windows to slide out, creating an open vehicle during cooler weather or slide back in for a closed-off, cooler air-conditioned ride.
"We love the flexibility," said Longenecker.
But not having the A/C fans and other parts under the trolley is the true futuristic move. That innovation allows space for the trolley to one day convert to natural gas.
"We only buy one trolley a year," said Longenecker. "We're thinking of getting a federal grant to convert to compressed natural gas."
The newly designed trolley cost $140,000.
Longenecker said that for almost a year and a half, he and others studied what was needed to air condition one of the trolleys. Then they designed the changes. And while Jolley Trolley is cruising into the future of transportation, the fun factor of riding the historic looking trolley has surged.
Trolley driver Jamie Prosser drove the service's Clearwater Beach route before changing to the coastal route, which runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday and shuttles riders from Clearwater to Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs.
"It's a very convenient and fun trip," said Prosser. "We go through all the little cities, through historic areas and shopping districts. There's a bit of something for everyone. Plus we make more places available to travelers staying on the beach. By using the trolley, those travelers experience more of our coastline."
Prosser sees regulars and tourists alike on the weekend route. Some like the open air trolleys. Some prefer air conditioning. The new Jolley Trolley, No. 7, is the 12th in the fleet. It will suit both.
Besides driving the weekend coastal route, Prosser's weekday job is working with children who have special needs.
"I sometimes see my students riding the trolley with their grandparents," said Prosser. "It thrills me to see some of my kids riding the trolley. I love my weekday job and I love driving the trolley. I don't know who has more fun, the driver or the people who ride."
While the new trolley incorporates modern design changes in the vehicle's operation, the goal is to maintain the historic ambiance of the trolley.
The plan is working.
The Clearwater Beach and coastal routes are growing faster than expected. The coastal route, which began a year ago, had an expected ridership of 15,000 passengers a year. After eight weeks in operation, according to Longenecker, the projected number of annual passengers increased to 30,000. Now Jolley Trolley's ridership numbers have grown to three times the original prediction. More than 45,000 passengers have stepped aboard as the extended service celebrates its one-year anniversary.
"We have to keep an eye on capacities much more closely," said Longenecker. "If a driver contacts us and says he or she is reaching capacity halfway through the route, we dispatch another trolley to assist with the passenger load. We have to do that frequently with Dunedin and downtown Clearwater."
That may be especially important now that a new group of Clearwater visitors turn to Jolley Trolley for a ride.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium has contracted with Jolley Trolley to shuttle visitors on the two-mile shuttle ride across the Memorial Causeway to its new Harborview Center location.
"Riding the Jolley Trolley is itself an experience," said Frank Dame, aquarium executive vice president. "People in North County like it, and the ridership has increased."
Winter's Dolphin Tail Adventure on the second floor of Harborview Center is projected to open in mid-December. Signs will direct people there first in an attempt to relieve the parking pressures at the aquarium.
Dames says that once it opens, "For the foreseeable future, anyone who purchases a ticket to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium will get a free ticket on that specific day to ride the Jolley Trolley between Winter's Dolphin Tail Adventure and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium."
This versatile trolley may be the first slated to run on compressed natural gas, but if the demand continues to increase for Clearwater's Jolley Trolleys, it may not be the last.
"It's been in service less than a month and with the exception of the Clearwater Bridge being backed up, we're running 98 percent on time," said Longenecker. "Reliability is important as more people learn to utilize public transportation."