PSTA approves purchase of 20 trolleys for $9.7 million

PSTA Board discussed an idea floated by the treasurer of the Jolley Trolley Board about taking over services along the beach during an Oct. 23 meeting during which PSTA approved the purchase of 20 new trolleys.

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Board of Directors voted 11-2 Oct. 23 to buy 20 new trolleys to replace the 16 that are now part of its 210-bus fleet.

Directors Dave Eggers and Joshua Shulman voted no.

Eggers, who serves on the Pinellas County Commission, would like to explore the possibility of having Jolley Trolley take over the service to allow PSTA to focus on regular bus services.

Shulman, who is the citizen representative from St. Petersburg, thinks PSTA might be able to save money if it discontinued its Central Avenue Trolley route when bus rapid transit is operational.

PSTA CEO Brad Miller said Pinellas County has the second most trolley service of any county in the United States. Miami-Dade County has the most.

Pinellas’ trolley routes run from Tarpon Springs to the north and, until Oct. 20, had ended in Pass-a-Grille. St. Pete Beach recently requested that PSTA end service to Pass-a-Grille.

Six different trolley routes run in the county, including the Central Avenue Trolley, the oldest service that began in 1916, and the Suncoast Beach Trolley, both of which are operated by PSTA. Jolley Trolley operates the Clearwater South Beach Trolley, North Coastal Trolley and Clearwater North Beach Trolley. The sixth route is the St. Petersburg Looper, which is operated by PSTA and Looper Group.

Miller said PSTA’s trolleys are the oldest vehicles in the fleet with three put in service in 2007, six in 2008 and seven in 2009. The trolleys have exceeded Federal Transit Administration’s expected useful life of 500,000 miles. Each has had overhauls and will require a third, as well as major body and cosmetic work to keep them in service.

The plan is to buy 16 new replacements and four additional trolleys to meet service needs.

The cost to purchase 20 Hometown Trolley Streetcars is just over $8.5 million plus $1.16 million in equipment, including driver security barriers for a total of nearly $9.7 million.

The money to pay for the new trolleys will come from FTA grants.

Debbie Leous said staff had explored the option proposed by Eggers and found that using Jolley Trolley to provide service would increase operating costs. Shulman’s proposal would save on the amount of grant money used for trolleys but would not help make up the deficit with operating costs.

Staff would like to expand trolley service if possible to Belleair Bluffs and in north county. Plans call for working on long-term contracts of 10 years with Looper Group, Jolley Trolley and Care-Ride, which provides paratransit services. A long-term contract does have the potential of reducing operating deficits, Leous said.

Miller said staff had discussed contracting with Jolly Trolley to operate more of PSTA’s trolley services.

“We’re interested in growing and expanding but not in a takeover of the service,” he said.

Director Darden Rice, who is a St. Petersburg councilmember, didn’t support Shulman’s idea of discontinuing the Central Avenue Trolley after the BRT route goes into service. She believes the two services have a separate purpose with the trolley providing a slower-paced ride with more stops geared to the tourists visiting downtown while those wanting a quicker trip between downtown and the beach will use the BRT.

She talked about the success of the free service provided by the St. Petersburg Looper. She would like to create the same model for the Central Avenue Trolley and doesn’t know if that would be possible by partnering with a private company with a different mission.

Director Charlie Justice, a County commissioner, asks how the conversation about privatizing the trolley service started. Miller said it began with a suggestion in an email from a Jolley Trolley board member. But no formal proposal has been received from Jolley Trolley to take over the service.

Starlite Cruises President and CEO Phil Henderson, who is the treasurer on the Jolley Trolley Board, said he was the one that sent the email. While there has been no formal proposal, he said Jolley Trolley would be interested in exploring taking over service for all the beach areas.

“We’re not looking to move inland,” he said.

He believes Jolley Trolley could provide the service more efficiently.

Leous pointed out that Jolley Trolley doesn’t have the ability to get FTA grants to buy new vehicles. Henderson agreed, saying Jolley Trolley would have to take out a loan to purchase them and then use its charter service to raise money to pay the debt service.

“You could take your money and put it elsewhere,” he said.

PSTA Chair Janet Long objected to trying to negotiate at a board meeting. She said there were a lot of questions. PSTA Attorney Isabella Sobel said if PSTA wanted to contract a third party to provide trolley service, it would have to put out a request for proposals. Henderson would like to make a deal without a RFP.

He said Jolley Trolley was a nonprofit that could provide the service for the greater good. He said PSTA spends money on other things without a RFP.

Miller said if the board approved purchase of the 20 new trolleys, it could still decide to look for a contractor to run them in the future.

“We have lots of options,” he said.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.