Funding in jeopardy for weekend trolley

Funding in jeopardy  for weekend trolley
The Riverside/Avondale Night Trolley runs a circular route of more than 40 stops each Friday and Saturday night.

Residents and visitors to the Riverside/Avondale Historic District need to step up usage of the weekend night trolley if the sponsored service is to continue past August.

The Riverside/Avondale Night Trolley currently runs every Friday and Saturday from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., thanks to sponsorships by 14 local businesses and restaurants. Those sponsorships will run out at the end of August and were a requirement by the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) to expand the service from monthly to weekly.

Currently the trolley averages 150 to 200 trips each weekend, but to continue as a viable public transportation option long term, trolley ridership needs to reach an average of 500 trips per weekend.

Avondale resident Dylan Phillips has been working on the logistics of a trolley since its inception. In fact, it was Phillips’ mobile app which led District 14 Councilman Jim Love to a dialogue with the JTA to begin the service on a monthly basis two years ago.

“The trolley was designed as a solution to the unique transportation problems in the Riverside Avondale neighborhoods. Specifically, Riverside Avondale consists of several pockets of small commercial strips within a largely residential district,” said Phillips. “This creates a unique lifestyle nestled next to the St. Johns River. As several of these small commercial strips have become entertainment districts in the last few years, we have struggled to find a balance between customer parking and resident concerns in the adjoining residential areas.”

Evidence for a trolley

About five years ago, Phillips and Riverside Avondale Preservation (RAP) surveyed the customer base at several neighborhood businesses, primarily restaurants, and found over 50 percent lived in the immediate neighborhoods. During the same period, Avondale residents were pushing back at the proposed Mellow Mushroom on St. Johns Avenue over concerns about lack of adequate parking in the area. The contentious issue led Councilman Love, in part, to initiate a parking study by the City of Jacksonville, which focused on the Park and King Streets commercial district and the Shoppes of Avondale.

The outcome of the survey and the study was a variety of possible solutions, including encouraging walking or bicycling to nearby destinations, valet parking service, and a dedicated trolley route. A short-lived valet service was trialed around the same time the Riverside Avondale Trolley began a trial service in January 2014 to run the first weekend of each month.

After six months, the JTA made the trial a permanent service and then, a year later with promises of financial support, the JTA agreed to expand the service to every weekend. Under the ad hoc committee leadership of Alan DeVault, partner in Black Sheep restaurant and, at the time, president of the 5 Points Merchants Association, RAP sought – and found – business sponsors to financially support the trolley.

Consider the benefits

Despite the 14 businesses who help defray costs through advertising, community support through increased ridership is needed to keep the service humming along past summer’s end. Proponents of the night trolley tout three-way benefits, for riders, residents and retailers.

“The Jacksonville community needs to support sustainable public transportation sys­tems in our neighborhoods if we are to grow as a city with vibrant, walkable districts,” said Riverside resident Alexandria Klempf, director of development for Forking Amazing Restaurants. “Some people may not be ready to ditch their cars completely, and that’s okay. Initiatives like the Riverside Avondale Night Trolley offer a huge benefit to the community they serve.”

In addition to the community benefit, riders of the trolley also enjoy perks. A STAR card or mobile trolley pass at some area restaurants can result in free glass of wine, discounted draft beers, wines and cocktails, or even 10 percent off the check.

Not only does it benefit the rider for convenience, but also local businesses and residents who live in the Riverside and Avondale community, according to Klempf. “The Night Trolley encourages economic growth by bringing new customers into existing local businesses,” she said. “It can help cut down the parking issues, because it eliminates the need to move cars from one restaurant or bar to the next, and it also provides a unique opportunity to meet your fellow neighbors in a fun, casual environment.”

The Night Trolley makes more than 40 stops throughout the neighborhood residential and commercial districts, hitting 5 Points, Park and King, the Shoppes of Avondale, the Brewery District, Stockton and College, and the St Johns Village area.

“My two-year-old daughter loves the trolley. Our daddy-daughter dates involve dinner at European Street, sweets at Biscottis and walks in Memorial Park,” said Phillips. “I can track the trolleys’ locations in real time on my smart phone, and gather her up without long waits at the bus stop. To her, it is always a big adventure. And for me as well.”

Klempf, who calls herself a “trolley cheerleader,” supports a scenario that would take a rider from a Riverside residence to EverBank Field.

“No parking fee, no parking hassles. Just public transportation, doing what it should: making it easier for you to enjoy the assets of your city,” said Klempf. “This scenario is a possibility. But if we do not use and support the current Night Trolley and other neighborhood public transportation systems, we will never see a sustainable public transportation system evolve in our urban core.”

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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