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Trolley might solve city's parking crunch

(ran Seminole, East editions of Neighborhood Times)

The best solution to the parking shortage downtown may be a trolley that costs nothing for riders and $1 a year for the city.

That's what city officials are hoping.

Parking is at a premium downtown, especially on weekends when there are events at the cultural center, the library is open and park shelters are rented. The city is also looking at how to handle parking for large events.

Construction on the new $21-million library began last year, and the city lost 2,500 parking spaces.

"The trolley would help alleviate some of that," said Joan Byrne, recreation, parks and art director. "A dollar a year, and we pay the maintenance. That is the best bargain."

The city would lease the vehicle from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

The trolley has air conditioning, a public announcement system and room for about 35 passengers. Byrne has proposed the trolley make a 1.6-mile loop beginning at the community center, stopping at West Bay Village and then heading to the cultural center and the library. The free shuttle would run every 15 minutes on weekends between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.

At the Tuesday work session, commissioners took a ride on the trolley so they could see what it was like. Most seemed amenable to the idea.

"I can see this going down Clearwater-Largo Road," Commissioner Jean Halvorsen said. "It's just the beginning."

Largo has been using the trolley during the past year for special events such as Halloween Spooktacular and December's Holiday Stroll.

Using the trolley regularly would require the city to sign a three-year lease with the PSTA. The city would be responsible for gas, maintenance and the drivers. Byrne estimated the cost to be about $18,000 a year.

The money, however, has not been calculated into the 2004-05 budget. And with Largo planning to increase its property tax rate for the second time in two years, at least one commissioner expressed his concern.

"We haven't even had the budget five days and we're already digging into the general fund," Commissioner Charlie Harper said. "This looks very good, but there are 100 other things that are going to look good between now and 2007."

The trolley could be the most cost-effective option for the parking problem.

Building a 250-car garage would cost about $3.75-million. Purchasing the triangle west of Largo Central Railroad carries a price tag of $1.5-million and would only add 145 parking spaces. Using the parking lots at the Largo Municipal Complex and Largo Community Center would still require shuttles.

Commissioners asked Byrne on Tuesday to develop ways to bring the cost down, such as operating the shuttle one weekend a month. One even suggested having restaurants pay to have their menus on the trolley.

The PSTA only has one trolley left, so the commission needs to act fast.

"The opportunity is here," City Manager Steve Stanton said. "It won't be here two months from now. The question is: Are we interested?"

The commission agreed to discuss the trolley proposal at a future meeting.