TARPON SPRINGS — A turf battle is brewing here between start-up shuttle company Florida Free Rides, which uses low-speed electric vehicles to move people around Clearwater Beach, and the Jolley Trolley, a long-standing open-air shuttle service that runs a route from the beach to Tarpon Springs.
Last week, Jolley Trolley officials suggested to Dunedin and Tarpon Springs officials that they can use electric vehicles to provide a shuttle service within those two towns. On Tuesday, the owners of Florida Free Rides will give their pitch to Tarpon commissioners for providing the same type of service with the same kind of low-speed electric vehicles. The company provides free rides but accepts tips.
Now, the two competitors are trading barbs.
Jason Gibertoni, one of the owners of Florida Free Rides, said Bob Longenecker, Jolley Trolley's executive director, is making disparaging remarks about his business, and he wants him to stop.
"We have been having a heated battle, and he (Longenecker) is slandering us around town," Gibertoni, 25, said.
But Longenecker said he's only repeating the complaints that have filtered into his office about the service. He said passengers have complained that Florida Free Rides drivers get upset when they don't get tips.
"You can't abuse the visitor who comes to Pinellas County because you are upset about a tip," Longenecker said.
Darlene Kole, president and chief executive officer of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce, said several companies provide a shuttle service on the beach, in addition to Florida Free Rides. She said the chamber hasn't received any complaints about Florida Free Rides.
Gibertoni and his two business partners, Brian Barreto and Kevin Martyn, started Florida Free Rides about two months ago. After getting permits from the city of Clearwater, they started using two low-speed vehicles similar to golf carts, as well as a minivan, to transport passengers along Clearwater Beach.
The owners, who are also the drivers, don't charge riders but accept tips. Most of the company's revenue comes from businesses that advertise on the shuttles. Service is provided from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily.
It isn't just Jolley Trolley's proposed entry into the low-speed electric vehicle shuttle service that has upset Gibertoni. It's also that the Jolley Trolley gets public tax dollars to help support its operations.
"My biggest concern is he is going around stealing our idea and is using tax dollars to fund our idea, when we can offer it to cities and businesses for free," Gibertoni said.
He added, "We see ourselves as a complement to the Jolley Trolley, and (I) was hoping that we could work together. But we are kind of stealing the spotlight away from him. He was enjoying the attention, but now the hotels are getting on board with us."
The Jolley Trolley stepped up its North Pinellas presence in November when it added a Friday, Saturday and Sunday route from Clearwater Beach into the downtowns of Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs. Local governments, along with a federal grant and proceeds from ridership, help fund the Jolley Trolley.
Countering Gibertoni's comment about the Jolley Trolley's funding, Longenecker said public funds are not used to purchase equipment, such as the trolleys. He said that money comes from the 700 to 800 private charters the service provides a year.
This year, the Jolley Trolley beach route is 43 percent self-funded, he said, and the north county route to Tarpon Springs is 28 percent self-funded.
Last week, Jolley Trolley officials discussed providing a golf cart tram service between Dunedin's Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, where the Blue Jays baseball team plays, to the downtown Dunedin trolley stops. In Tarpon Springs, Longenecker has proposed adding electric carts between the Sponge Docks and downtown.
"Our business plan called for rolling out a premium service called Jolley Trolley on Demand," Longenecker said. "It's no big secret."
Gibertoni said that plan crosses the line.
"He's using public money to start a taxi service," Gibertoni said. "Jolley Trolley is supposed to provide public transportation and not a private for-hire taxi system. I don't think it's a good use of taxpayer dollars and could create an unfair business environment if he's able to use public money to run what should be a private enterprise."
Gibertoni has been in contact with Tarpon officials about providing shuttle services at the Sponge Docks and the city's historic downtown. Florida Free Rides will make a presentation at a City Commission work session Tuesday. If Tarpon officials support the idea, Gibertoni hopes to have shuttle services running in Tarpon by early 2012.
Tarpon Commissioner Chris Alahouzos is looking forward to the presentation.
"It's always been our goal to connect the Sponge Docks and downtown," Alahouzos said, adding that if two services are available to make proposals, all the better. "Competition is good."
Gibertoni said he doesn't mind competition, but he wants Longenecker to stop "bad mouthing" his company.
"If he's not worried about us, why is he raising a fuss about us around town?" Gibertoni asked. "From our standpoint and public relations point of view, it's not worth the hassle to haggle someone over not tipping us."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com and (727) 445-4174.