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PSTA trolley system proposed for beaches

(ran East, South, Beach editions of NEIGHBORHOOD TIMES)

The PSTA is seeking a grant to buy eight open-air trolleys. Officials hope that it cuts down on traffic, pollution and parking problems.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has a vision: a fleet of eight open-air trolleys ferrying tourists between hotels and beaches and businesses from Clearwater Beach to John's Pass.

The trolley service, which planners see beginning in late 2000, would calm traffic along Gulf Boulevard and perhaps eliminate the hassle of renting cars or feeding a parking meter.

The PSTA received approval in July from the Metropolitan Planning Organization, Pinellas County's transportation board, to apply for grant money to buy the trolleys. The PSTA then would seek bids from companies to build the "made-to-order" trolleys, according to director Roger Sweeney. The estimated cost of the project is $3.5-million.

Sweeney said the new system will provide an easier method of tourist travel and employment opportunities: "At the height of tourist season, cars are bumper to bumper along Gulf Boulevard."

The trolleys will be designed like the "old-time" replicas seen in Clearwater and St. Petersburg. The vehicles will run on compressed natural gas. A fueling station would be constructed in Clearwater to supply the system.

There is a bus and trolley system that currently serves the Clearwater beaches, but the new system would run the length of the beaches in the PSTA service area. The system does not include St. Pete Beach or Treasure Island, but PSTA hopes to extend the service if those areas are interested.

Kathleen McDole, general manager of the Friendly Fisherman seafood restaurant in John's Pass Village, said employees already have a hard time traveling back and forth to work. She said the transit authority needed to extend the times of the existing service.

"If they (employees) don't have a car, they can't get home after 9 p.m.," McDole said. "The need for workers on the beaches is huge."

Clearwater Commissioner Ed Hooper thinks a new mass transit system will help alleviate parking problems and curb pollution with the additional cars during travel season.

"It's an inexpensive way of getting tourists around," Hooper said. "It will also give them an opportunity to visit other beaches."