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Jolley Trolley popularity on new route surprises planners

The people idling outside Peggy O'Neill's Irish Pub and Eatery in recent months don't bother co-owner Eric Webber one bit.

They face away from the building at first, scanning the road for someone to pick them up.

But then something — perhaps the heat, the lure of a cold drink or simple curiosity — draws some of them inside the Palm Harbor restaurant.

The "couple dozen" new customers each weekend are evidence, Webber says, that the November expansion of Jolley Trolley service from Clearwater Beach into the downtowns of Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs is good for business, just as area business and government leaders had hoped.

"We're starting to see people that are using our downtown as a hub — either for the beginning of their trip or the middle," Webber said. "I certainly believe that as awareness increases and also the weather gets warmer … the ridership will go up. I'm excited about it."

So are transit planners, who say statistics released this week indicate ridership higher than projected has infused new life into the decades-old trolley service.

For years, the Jolley Trolley shuttled tourists along Clearwater Beach until it was nearly bankrupted in 2009 by budget cuts.

In a move to spread more tourism dollars throughout North Pinellas, trolley officials partnered with community and business leaders in Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs to secure funding for three-day weekend service. Pinellas County and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority also contribute financial support.

The trolleys run once an hour on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Rides are $2 each for adults or $4.50 for a day pass.

Four months later, high customer demand and heavy traffic congestion have forced officials to add a third trolley to keep on schedule.

And residents and business owners have expressed interest in adding new trolley stops in Ozona, Largo and Safety Harbor and at Honeymoon Island State Park. Some people are calling for an extra day — or four — of operation.

"The interesting thing in my mind is the staff over at PSTA says it takes two or three years for people to get the word out," said trolley executive director Bob Longenecker. "If that's the case, the future looks pretty bright."

The trolley's Clearwater Beach route carried 134,000 passengers last year, Longenecker said. Transit planners initially projected the new route would add 15,000 riders annually. But high interest has prompted officials to double the projection to 30,000 new passengers over the next year.

As of March 19, the trolley had carried more than 12,830 passengers on the new route, according to a report released by the PSTA Tuesday.

According to the report, about 40 percent of riders board at Island Estates — the designated transfer point for the beachside and mainland routes. About 44 percent board in either Dunedin or Tarpon Springs. Some 10 percent board in Palm Harbor and roughly 6 percent board in downtown Clearwater.

Officials had anticipated they would recover about 11 percent of operating costs through fare box revenue. However, they've averaged about 16 percent in recent months, owed partially to a spike of 28 percent in February, said PSTA interim executive director Denise Skinner.

"In all ways, it's exceeded the projections," Skinner said. "It's doing very, very well."

The report — to be shared with government partners at their April meetings — indicates downtown Clearwater and Palm Harbor trolley use is strongest during dinner hours, while Tarpon Springs gets most of its traffic during the day. Dunedin is popular both day and night.

Business owners also say the trolley has been a popular option for folks who want to visit the beach or mainland businesses without having to worry about parking or driving drunk.

"We not only have seen a lot of tourists using it, but a lot of locals," said Rea Sieber, president of the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks Merchants Association.

Sieber, who owns Rea Sunshine Shop and Wine at the Docks, said customers have told her the trolleys have been so full they've had to wait for the next one.

"We wish it was going all week long," she said. "Especially during (tourist) season, I think it could run every day and be profitable for them."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

By the numbers

Saturday is the most popular travel day, according to a PSTA study of the Jolley Trolley's new route.

33.3 percent ride Friday

44.1 percent ride Saturday

22.6 percent ride Sunday

1,313 Number of riders on Saturday, Feb. 26, the busiest day of operation so far.

Jolley Trolley popularity on new route surprises planners 03/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 7:46pm]
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