Jolley Trolley's future dim if Clearwater ends funding

CLEARWATER — For nearly 30 years, the bright red and yellow Jolley Trolley has ferried passengers around Clearwater Beach. Riders like the charm of the little buses, which sport wooden benches and open-air sides that lets the beach breeze sweep through.

Now the Jolley Trolley is struggling to survive, its existence threatened by budget cuts.

"We've got our backs up against the wall here," said Robert Longenecker, who recently became the trolley's new president.

The trolley service depends heavily on aid from the city of Clearwater. Because money is tight, the city reduced the trolley's annual subsidy to $150,000 this year from $280,000 last year. It's leaning toward cutting that to zero in the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

The Jolley Trolley carries about 100,000 passengers a year, but Clearwater officials note that the Suncoast Beach Trolley operated by the county's transit agency offers a similar service.

The Jolley Trolley has two buses circulating through Clearwater Beach, Island Estates and Sand Key. The Suncoast Trolley stops in those same areas on its route between downtown Clearwater and Pass-a-Grille — although it doesn't go into north Clearwater Beach like the Jolley Trolley does, and it doesn't go into Island Estates as often as the Jolley Trolley.

Longenecker and others argue that the Jolley Trolley is worth saving because it's an important tourist amenity that contributes to Clearwater Beach's unique atmosphere.

They're lobbying city officials to keep some funding for it. They're brainstorming a new business plan. They're selling off three trolley buses out of a fleet of nine.

They'd like to start running the trolley into downtown Clearwater again, although they're not sure they can afford to. And they're exploring a partnership with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which operates the Suncoast Trolley.

Without a city subsidy, the Jolley Trolley might fold or it might operate seasonally, Longenecker said.

"Rather than go from $150,000 to zero, can we have some sort of compromise?" he said. "We think that going seasonal would just be part of a death spiral."

The trolley, which operates as a nonprofit independent business, has a $400,000 budget and about 20 full- and part-time employees. Aside from the city subsidy, it earns income from charters for weddings and special events; advertising on the buses; and the $2 fares that it charges passengers. (The Suncoast Trolley charges $1.75.)

Longenecker, a retired executive who spent 32 years with UPS and now lives in Island Estates, recently became the trolley's president. He was appointed to the $50,000-a-year job by the Jolley Trolley's board, whose nine members are appointed by three Clearwater Beach-area civic associations. Longenecker was a board member.

He replaces longtime trolley president Bill Kirbas, 83, who stepped down to become the business' director of operations. Kirbas worries about the trolley's future.

"The fight's not over. But they are talking about contributing zero, so if we don't get funding we are out of business. You just can't charge what it would take to break even," Kirbas said. "It makes me sad. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get it going."

In June, City Manager Bill Horne will present a preliminary budget to the Clearwater City Council that will recommend zero dollars for the trolley.

It's ultimately the council's decision. But Horne has to slash $7 million to $13 million from the city budget and is looking at laying off employees and shuttering facilities. The trolley is a relatively low priority, he said.

"With declining revenue, the city will be doing fewer things," said Horne, who suggests the trolley seek financial support from beach businesses that benefit from its existence.

Vice Mayor Paul Gibson knows all about the trolley. He's a Clearwater Beach resident and a PSTA board member. He said last year's spike in gas prices, which hit $4 a gallon, ate up a chunk of the trolley's bank account.

"That's what really put the wooden stake in their heart quickly," Gibson said. "Now they're in a position where their reserves are precariously low."

Like Horne, Gibson suggested that the Jolley Trolley follow the model of the Looper trolley in downtown St. Petersburg, which draws some of its support from private businesses in its area.

Staff photographer Doug Clifford contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Fast facts

Jolley Trolley passengers

Ridership dropped after the trolley ended its route to downtown Clearwater last year.

2007: 141,328

2008: 106,559

Jolley Trolley's future dim if Clearwater ends funding 04/13/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 13, 2009 8:43pm]

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