A joint venture with the Jolly Trolley may offer a solution to Lewes' parking issues.
Turner Hastings, co-owner of Transit U Inc., met with Lewes City Council Feb. 14 to discuss a possible partnership for a trolley service in the city. The project would likely involve some up-front cost to the city, but the aim is for the partnership to be as cost effective as possible.
“From the tourist part of it, this is definitely a need that we have,” said Betsy Reamer, executive director of the Lewes Chamber of Commerce. “We've talked about parking for 25 years, I think. If we can do something that provides an alternative that is quick, which this seems to be, I think it would be very beneficial.”
Hastings said if council soon approves the plan, service could start this summer.
The proposed route would begin at Shields Elementary School at the edge of city limits. The school's parking lot could serve as a park and ride for visitors headed to the beach or downtown for shopping and dining. Other suggested stops are Beebe Healthcare, Second Street at Market Street and Lewes Beach. The trolley would work in reverse order on the way back. Hastings estimates one full loop would take 15 to 20 minutes. He is open to adding additional stops, such as the library.
Weekend operation is planned in May, September and October with daily operation during the summer season. Hastings expects the trolley to run from mid-morning until after dinner.
The Jolly Trolley, which Hastings co-owns with his father and step mother, has operated a fixed-route system in Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach since 1991. Neither municipality endures any costs; ridership fees and advertising space on the trolleys pay the costs. Hastings said the business plan could be translated to Lewes, but he is unsure if the revenue generated would defray all expenses.
Mayor Jim Ford said the city would be taking a risk.
“[Jolly Trolley] is looking for us to underwrite the operations of the program and then take a leap of faith on reimbursement to some extent – that's an unknown,” he said.
Hastings' proposal, which is subject to change, estimates the annual cost to Lewes at $80,000 to $90,000. Those fees cover the company's costs for insurance, maintenance, labor, fuel and support.
A proposed $1 rider fee and vehicle advertising would offset some of the costs, he said. If there is enough ridership, cost to the city could be minimal.
“I don't know what the ridership would be, and that's why it is sort of a pilot program,” Hastings said. “We'll all be taking that risk together.”
Riders using the Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach service are charged $3 one way and $5 round trip. Those unloading at a stop within the same town are charged $1. Hastings said the intra-city model would likely work best for Lewes and could save visitors money.
“There are not insignificant parking fees down at the beach,” he said. “In theory, we might be saving people money by providing a pickup to take dad back to the beach after he's dropped off the car.”
One expense not included in Hastings' proposal is the purchase of a trolley, which would fall on the city. Brand new trolleys can cost nearly $175,000, but older used vehicles are more affordable – $11,000 for a 30-year old trolley, $20,000 for a 15-year old vehicle or $40,000 to $50,000 for newer used models.
If the city decides the program does not work, Hastings said, it should be able to sell the vehicle for a comparable price in order to recoup most of its money.
Ford called the program attractive, but he has not committed just yet. He gave council time to digest Hastings' presentation and will likely discuss it again at the Friday, Feb. 21 budget workshop.
“The initial idea is that if we did move forward, we would be very conservative in trying the program as an experiment, both from the operations of the program to how it affects the city and also the city's expenses involved with it,” he said.