Sometimes a good idea comes along that makes people wonder why someone didn't think of it sooner. A proposal to use the Jolley Trolley to ferry Clearwater Beach visitors to downtown Clearwater and Dunedin, and eventually perhaps as far as the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, is such an idea.
The nonprofit trolley service has struggled for years to survive, but now it sees promise in the idea of expanding its route off the beach and up the Pinellas coastline. It's an idea that could appeal to Clearwater Beach tourists who would like to see other North Pinellas attractions but either arrived by plane and don't have a car or would prefer not to drive on unfamiliar roads.
The proposed new route would allow them to catch the trolley on Sand Key or Clearwater Beach and take it into downtown Clearwater, or up to Dunedin to see that city's celebrated downtown, or up to Honeymoon Island to visit the state park or catch a ferry to Caladesi Island, or up to Tarpon Springs to visit the historic downtown or the Greek-themed Sponge Docks.
The trolleys — colorful, open air vehicles with wooden benches — would run Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. until midnight.
A little matter of $150,000 stands in the way. That's how much additional money the trolley system needs each year to expand its route. And given the trolley's history of financial problems, that could be a big obstacle.
Another obstacle could be history. The trolley once ran through downtown Clearwater but was stopped in 2008 because of costs and low ridership. It wouldn't make sense to restart the mainland route just to go to downtown Clearwater, but adding in other west Pinellas stops like Dunedin and Tarpon Springs could attract more riders.
Trolley executive director Bob Longenecker is working to get commitments for the $150,000 from groups that would benefit from the new trolley route or the general expansion of mass transit. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority could contribute $50,000 or more. The Clearwater Downtown Development Board has pledged $16,000 a year. Dunedin city government is being asked to pitch in, and Tarpon Springs also could be asked to pledge funds. Merchants groups should be particularly eager to help, as the trolley will bring customers their way.
What the trolley system needs is not a one-year donation, but a commitment for sustained funding so it can make the investment in equipment and personnel required to expand the service. Mass transit typically cannot recoup costs entirely through fare box proceeds, so subsidies and grants are necessary. It currently costs $1.75 for one trolley ride, or $4 a day or $20 a week.
Residents could benefit from the new trolley route as well. Imagine residents of Sand Key condominiums hopping on the trolley to see a show at the newly refurbished Capitol Theater in downtown Clearwater, or the eventual residents of downtown Clearwater's new condominiums journeying up to Dunedin for dinner.
But this idea's biggest boon could be to tourism, an important local industry that needs all the help it can get right now.