You Gotta Have A Plan
The Jolley Trolley, Clearwater Beach's charming little bit of transportation fun, is in financial trouble. Begun in 1982 as a small effort to relieve some of the traffic congestion on Clearwater Beach, the Trolley was originally free to the customer. Paid for by an increase in the parking rates on Clearwater Beach, it was operated for the city by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA). It was intended, not so much as transportation for everyone, as a pleasant way for visitors to leave their cars at their motels and enjoy "trolleying" around the Beach. At the time, the PSTA also ran full-sized buses on Clearwater Beach.
In the nineties, the City Commission changed the status of the Trolley, appointing a board of directors to do the operation instead of the PSTA. Later, another City Commission did away with the parking lots that contributed the revenue which paid for the Trolley service. "Not a problem," they said, "we'll find another source of revenue for the Trolley."
And they did -- until times got hard and they began looking for ways to save money. Now suddenly, in 2009, the Trolley was supposed to have been self supporting all along. The Trolley Board struggled with ways to be self supporting. They put advertising on the Trolleys. They raised the fare to $2 a person. They accepted private charters for the Trolleys. None of it worked and so, knowing that the PSTA subsidized a similar Trolley in downtown St. Petersburg, as well as a Trolley route in Gulfport, the board of the Jolley Trolley appealed to the PSTA for a similar subsidy.
"It's only fair," opined Bill Kirbas, longtime chairman of the board of the Jolley Trolley.
"Let's look at it," responded Tim Garling director of the PSTA. The look consisted of an extensive survey, conducted by a Tampa firm. According to the survey, the large majority of Jolley Trolley riders use the Trolley often and liked the service. More than half stated that, if they couldn't ride the Trolley, they would drive, not take the PSTA trolley that somewhat follows the same route as it proceeds from Park Street in Clearwater, to Clearwater Beach on its way to Pass-a-Grille. Some time ago, the buses were replaced with these PSTA Trolleys, using the same streets on Clearwater Beach. The Jolley Trolley stops "on demand." All you have to do is flag it down. You have to stand under a trolley sign to catch a PSTA Trolley because of a standing rule that keeping a reliable schedule is important to the efficient operation of a transportation service.
"I am always interested in finding ways to support public transportation," says the PSTA Director. "Each system enhances the other systems ability to take people where they want to go."
But, the study of the Jolley Trolley system resulted in a decision that subsidizing the Trolley would not be a good use of public money because, unlike the system in St. Petersburg, it duplicated what the PSTA Trolley is doing on Clearwater Beach.
"The St. Petersburg Trolley," Garling explained, "is an extension of the PSTA service in St. Petersburg. It is also actively supported by the businesses in Downtown St. Petersburg," he added.
As for the Gulfport subsidy, that is a state grant, administered by PSTA. It is not a subsidy.
But all is not lost for the Jolley Trolley, yet. Clearwater City Councilmember Paul Gibson, who is the city's representative on the PSTA Board, says, "The Jolley Trolley needs a new business plan that addresses our changing economy - in particular the reduced number of visitors to our community and their lowered disposable income. A new plan could include support from Clearwater Beach businesses. The PSTA is ready and willing to support the Jolley Trolley if a successful plan can be implemented."
The PSTA Director adds, "We are looking for a way to be supportive of the Jolley Trolley. Certainly there are models in place, such as the St. Petersburg Trolley route, which can be followed. Perhaps we can find some middle ground to a service that works."
And the Jolley Trolley Board has appointed a committee of experienced executives who are working diligently to evaluate all future options to keep the Jolley Trolley in operation and to work towards a positive relationship with local businesses, government and the PSTA.
Rose Marie Swisshelm Bonnington, vice president of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce, is emphatic about what the little Trolley means to our tourist industry. "It is extremely important," she says. "It's one of the few truly tourist entertainments we offer our visitors. Children like it and it makes it so much easier for our visitors to get around on the Beach. Perhaps we could use it more effectively by offering rides to the Marine Aquarium, or downtown to the Farmers Market or other interesting places. But we need it."
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