While much of the Tampa Bay area's attention has been focused on rail transportation, a new transit opportunity has grown from the ground up in North Pinellas — quickly, efficiently and without a lot of debate or bureaucracy. It's an example of what can be accomplished when local leaders and residents work well together.
Starting next month, colorful trolleys will traverse the western side of North Pinellas from Sand Key to Tarpon Springs on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Residents and tourists can hop on along the route and ride to Clearwater Beach; the downtowns of Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs; or the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks.
Merchants in those areas are thrilled.
Dunedin business leaders first broached the idea of using mass transit to get Clearwater Beach tourists to Dunedin's popular downtown. But Dunedin Commissioner Julie Bujalski and Robert Longenecker, director of the nonprofit Jolley Trolley Inc. on Clearwater Beach, are getting most of the credit for taking that good idea and running with it.
Bujalski, who also serves as Dunedin's representative on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, saw the promise in a trolley route that could ferry Clearwater Beach visitors to Dunedin, boosting income for downtown shops and restaurants.
In that idea, Longenecker saw a future for the small trolley service. The Jolley Trolley has struggled for years. It once ran a route around Clearwater Beach and downtown Clearwater, but had to withdraw to just the beach two years ago because of insufficient ridership on the downtown Clearwater leg.
But Longenecker thought a route to Dunedin was promising. And some changes in downtown Clearwater, including new restaurants and the transformation of the old Capitol Theater into a performing arts venue, might also improve the downtown ridership. The problem was where to get the money to expand the Jolley Trolley route.
That turned out not to be a problem. The Clearwater Downtown Development Board offered money toward the annual cost of the service, adding to the annual subsidy the city already provides. The Dunedin City Commission enthusiastically endorsed the idea, offering up to $43,000.
News about the trolley looper route between the beach and Dunedin caught the attention of Palm Harbor residents. Could the trolley come north to Palm Harbor's tiny downtown, they asked?
And when Bujalski and Longenecker made a presentation about the proposal to Tarpon Springs city commissioners, those officials grabbed at the idea of trolley riders funneling into downtown and the Sponge Docks and they offered some $26,000 for their share.
With the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority's offer of up to $100,000, the funding for a one-year trial of the route was secured. The total cost of the service will be about $235,000 a year. Fare box proceeds — adult passengers will pay $2 a ride or $4.50 for a daily pass — and advertising proceeds will help cover the cost.
Plenty of work remains to be done: setting up trolley stops, hiring drivers, sprucing up the bright yellow and red trolleys, advertising the new service. But Longenecker isn't wasting time. He expects the route to be operating by Thanksgiving.
There hasn't been much jolly news for local businesses during this economic downturn. The new Jolley Trolley route is the happy result of people working well together to find creative opportunities to improve the local business climate.