DUNEDIN — The interest is there, but the money is not.
Jolley Trolley officials say business owners along the new North Pinellas route have been clamoring to expand the three-day weekend service's hours of operation to include Thursday.
"Monday through Thursday, all the merchants are advertising their specials because they're trying to encourage people to come out, so they would love to see Thursday added," said trolley executive director Bob Longenecker.
But the trolley's funding partners, scheduled to approve its 2012 operating budget next month, say now isn't a good time.
It's not for lack of potential. Ever since the trolley expanded service in November from Clearwater Beach into the downtowns of Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs, officials have boasted higher-than-anticipated ridership.
Rather, money's the issue, the funding partners say. Data show businesses along the new route have contributed less advertising revenue than expected: 4 percent of the trolley's overall revenue instead of the projected 8 percent.
Trolley officials in May were awarded a $227,000 Florida Department of Transportation grant, which temporarily cut operational costs in half and helped fund "relief" trolleys to keep the system on schedule during peak hours. But rather than quickly soak up the three-year grant, leaders say they want to wait and possibly find another grant to launch Thursday service.
Furthermore, said Dunedin Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski, it's premature to add a service to a route that's not even a year old.
"We could have an added day of service, increased pickup times or added locations, and we need to analyze all those things to see what's best for North Pinellas as a whole," said Bujalski, who was instrumental in helping trolley officials establish the North Pinellas route. "We'll probably look at that at the end of next year to see if those numbers warrant expansion."
According to data presented this week to Dunedin and Tarpon Springs city commissioners, trolley traffic is booming:
• Ridership has consistently hit more than double projections, including in summer months when numbers were expected to drop off as spring breakers and snowbirds left town.
• Morning passengers tend to include visiting and local seniors, and families and students taking day trips to Tarpon Springs or the beach.
• Dunedin is a favorite among afternoon passengers — typically couples or small groups going out for dinner and socializing.
• Palm Harbor, Dunedin and Clearwater Beach are favored by nighttime passengers. These tend to be young people who are "pub crawling" in medium- to large-sized groups.
Prior to launching the route, transportation planners estimated 11 percent of the trolley's revenue would come from ticket sales. So far, officials have recovered 19 percent of operating expenses through ticket sales and believe they can bring in 22 percent next year.
Trolley officials said they'll return next month to seek approval of next year's operating budget.
Among the items partners must decide is whether to sign one- or two-year funding agreements. They will also focus on attracting more business advertising.
Mention of the proposal to add Thursday service was eliminated from this week's presentations. And while it's not feasible to add new services at the moment, officials pitched other ideas that might help communities capture more riders in the future.
Officials raised the possibility of linking Dunedin's Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, where the Blue Jays play, and the downtown trolley stops through a golf cart tram service.
Similarly in Tarpon Springs, trolley officials suggested adding golf carts between the Sponge Dock and downtown to encourage movement between the city's two main focal points.
Times staff writer Demorris A. Lee contributed to this report. Reach Keyonna Summers at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.