CLEARWATER — Tourists and residents enjoy riding the Jolley Trolley, but for many beach service workers, the trolley is their only transportation to and from work. Luckily for everyone involved, the Jolley Trolley is on the right track. It is thriving this year.
"We've had an enormous boost in riders, primarily because of our Clearwater Marine Aquarium route," said Jolley Trolley executive director Bob Longnecker.
Ridership numbers jumped after the Jolley Trolley partnered with the aquarium to shuttle visitors between the Island Estates facility and the Dolphin Tale Adventure exhibit in the downtown Harborview Center. Visitors can park free at both locations and, with a paid admission to either attraction, ride the trolley for free.
But the trolley service has had a good year in other ways, too. Though final numbers for the fiscal year are not in yet, ridership on the Jolley Trolley beach route is up 4 to 8 percent this year, Longnecker said. And its coastal route between Clearwater and Tarpon Springs will be up 11 to 12 percent, Longnecker predicted.
Longnecker expects growth to continue in 2013, and even longer, thanks to Winter, the aquarium's famous dolphin that swims with a prosthetic tail.
"What's incredible about a movie like Dolphin Tale, apparently the lingering visitation because of it continues for three or four years," Longnecker said. "We expect normal growth on the beach and coastal route, but high levels of visitors on the Clearwater Marine Aquarium route."
While ridership has increased this year, so has the cost of fuel. According to Longnecker, that expense is the greatest financial challenge the Jolley Trolley faces in 2013. But upgrades and new initiatives are in place to increase ridership on all routes, expand services and help offset costs.
"The thing we've spent the most time on and the largest investment in is a GPS system that ultimately will allow passengers to look at their smartphones or devices to know when the trolley will arrive. Or maybe walk into a chamber office and say, 'I think the trolley's supposed to be here at 1:08, could you tell me where it is.' They will be able to know that we're six minutes away or four minutes away," he said.
Mobile phone apps are also part of the upgrades. Future improvements being considered include digital signs posting arrival information at key trolley stops.
This month, the Jolley Trolley is expected to start its new On-Demand program. The trolley service, using street-legal electric "circulator" minibuses that carry up to 12 people, will pick up at curbside anyone who lives within three-fourths of a mile of a trolley stop and transport them to that stop. Four electric minibuses are ready to roll, but the cost for that service is not yet set.
"We think the service will be well-received, but financially we're in the unknown," said Longnecker.
Once owned by the city of Clearwater, and later controlled by the county bus system, the Jolley Trolley is now a nonprofit company. Its funding comes from cities, the county, grants, fares and advertising.
"We're in the unique position of being one of the highest self-funded operations in the state, about 44 percent self-funded," said Longnecker. "My understanding is the best in the country is New York and they are 50 percent."
To further increase Jolley Trolley's self-funding, officials are talking about expanding the On-Demand program so those who pay an extra fee could be driven directly to an intended destination.
A soft opening for the curbside service will begin with exclusive deals for a couple of hotels. Next, regular customers will be contacted about the service.
"We feel strongly that anything we roll out needs to be perfect service," said Longnecker. "We've won a lot of awards these past few years, not only for the appearance of the Jolley Trolley, but for customer service."