ST. PETERSBURG — It's almost impossible to find a weekend parking spot on Beach Drive.
City and business leaders think they've found a creative solution in the now defunct Pier, where the parking lots are almost always empty.
Starting next month, free trolleys will shuttle folks to and from Beach Drive. Pickup and drop-off will be at the Dolphin Parking Lot along the Pier approach, which will be renamed the Beach Drive Parking Lot.
"Beach Drive has just gotten so popular and that's a wonderful thing," said Eric Carlson, director of transportation for the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. "When you've got a popular destination and a finite number of parking spots, what can you do? ... If I'm driving along Beach Drive and the meters are full, now what?"
Hopefully, instead of getting frustrated or turning away, people will drive to the Pier parking lot and hop on a shuttle, said Joe Kubicki, the city's transportation director.
The current all-day flat parking fee at the lot is $3. That won't change, Kubicki said, and the shuttle ride will be free.
Once on board, people will be taken in a loop that stops at the Vinoy, the Birchwood and the Museum of Fine Arts before returning to the lot.
If they want to go beyond Beach Drive, to other spots downtown, they can pay 50 cents to follow the larger loop that the existing downtown trolley takes.
"I think it'll be very cool and catch on," Kubicki said.
The Dolphin parking lot has 320 spaces. The other lot, called the Pelican, has 253 spots.
Since the Pier closed, its parking lots have been "under-utilized," Kubicki said. Those who do park there are usually visitors who are unaware the tourist icon has closed.
Officials hope the new park-and-ride concept will appeal to locals, too. They said anecdotal evidence and ridership data from existing downtown trolleys and shuttles back up the case for the new idea.
Last month, 3,722 people boarded the looper trolley. Of those, 2,422 people — or about 65 percent — got on in the areas targeted by the new route.
Carlson said the new route shouldn't trigger huge cost increases for the downtown partnership, which administers the city's trolleys.
Contributions from the city and business owners allow the system to operate. The shuttles have been donated or leased from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
"We've still got some details to work out," Carlson said. "But we're looking forward to it."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected], (727) 893-8643 or @cornandpotatoes on Twitter.