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For budget reasons, the downtown shuttle buses will be strictly for beach riders.


THE LONGTIME BEACH SHUTTLE SERVICE will eliminate routes to the mainland at the end of September.

Clearwater leaders say money is tight and they have to cut back the city's annual subsidy. So that means cutting the trolley's daily 1-mile trips from the beach to downtown.

But, transit officials say, beach riders familiar with the bright red and yellow open-air buses won't miss out.

Those routes, which stretch from Island Estates to Sand Key, shouldn't change much.

Still, the news was upsetting to some who enjoy the views and the convenience of letting someone else drive. Even if they don't go into downtown.

"I hate to see them do anything to it," said Sandy Snyder, 62, a teacher from Toledo, Ohio.

Snyder, vacationing on the beach Thursday, said the bus is one of the reasons she chooses to visit Clearwater over other beach communities. It means she doesn't have to rent a car.

The buses, though, are much more than transportation, said Tony Zello, a 69-year-old New York transplant who has been driving a trolley for about a year and a half.

"For kids, it's just kind of a cool thing," he said. "You should see their smiles when they get on."

Tugging a hanging cord that sounds the horn, Zello adds: "The kids love this. They go crazy. It's just a lot of fun."

With the beach in transition - as construction crews work on condos, a hotel and a massive promenade - city leaders say it's time to re-evaluate how the buses should be used and where they should go.

Although 145,000 people rode the buses last year, City Manager Bill Horne said ridership to downtown "is virtually nonexistent."

Mayor Frank Hibbard said the reductions give the shuttle a chance to "really focus on its main objective, which is moving tourists around on the beach."

Shuttle service president Bill Kirbas said that while the trolley will continue to run daily along the beach, the routes might shrink a "little bit, but not significantly."

He said no bus drivers will lose their jobs. In fact, he added, if downtown ever gets more pedestrian traffic from the new condos under way, he expects to hire more.

"Once downtown is revitalized, people on the beach will want to go downtown and we'll put the trolleys back," he said.

The Jolley Trolley, which has operated as a nonprofit independent business since 1994, also offers a charter service.

The operation depends heavily on city aid. Last year, Clearwater set aside $280,000 for it, but this year funding was reduced by $130,000.

The service also makes money from advertising and fares.

Riders say they like the charm of the buses, which sport wooden benches and large open-air sides so the air breezes in.

"If I lived here I'd want the option of riding on it," said Brenda Barber, 50, a Maryland resident who came down for the week with her husband. "It's very convenient and for us, it gave us a chance to see the rest of the beach."