The Coastal Star

Delray Beach: City back to zero on downtown shuttle services

By Jane Smith

Delray Beach leaders are trying to put together a pilot people-mover program after two free shuttles stopped operating on Oct. 1.

The Delray Roundabout Trolley died because it didn’t get a city subsidy.

The popular Downtowner also stopped operating. It used open-air electric vehicles to shuttle residents and hotel guests for free. The founders, Stephen Murray and Travis Gleason, relied on advertising to cover their costs and requested tips for the drivers.

Murray wrote on Facebook that they were changing their business model from what was called “Downtowner 1.0” to one that needed a city subsidy. They made a bid to provide an on-demand point-to-point and a fixed-route service that would stop at the Tri-Rail station and city garages, but were notified they did not get the bid.

Soon, the commissioners were blamed for killing the Downtowner when they did not play a role in the selection process. The purchasing director tallied rankings made by a four-person team of city, Community Redevelopment Agency and Downtown Development Authority employees in late August. Commissioners never saw the bids.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia sent an email to a concerned resident explaining how the rankings never made it to commissioners.

She later surveyed residents, asking whether they want the city to subsidize a shuttle service. Many favored that idea, Petrolia said.

“But that was for the open-air vehicles. That’s the thrill of being in a Downtowner,” Petrolia said about her unscientific survey. The Downtowner is moving to electric automobiles because they hold a charge longer and can be used in rainy weather.

City employees are checking on PalmTran bus routes that stop at the Delray Beach Tri-Rail station and travel east into the city’s downtown. They didn’t want to disrupt workers who relied on the trolley to get to and from the downtown.

Delray Beach city commissioners, who also sit as the city’s CRA board members, tabled their decision Sept. 11 on whether to pay $475,000 for another year of trolley service, deferring it to the Oct. 9 meeting. The trolley stopped running at 11 p.m. Sept. 30.

“I don’t see value in the trolley,” said Adam Frankel, who pulled the trolley item off the consent agenda for discussion.

CRA Vice Chairwoman Shirley Johnson agreed: “It’s a polluter … why can’t we just kill it?”

Their action to table the matter terminated the trolley. 

At the end of the Sept. 25 City Commission meeting, the trolley was brought up again. The contract with First Transit was canceled, said Assistant City Manager Caryn Gardner-Young. She also suggested that because the city’s CRA had the money set aside that its staff take the lead. The pilot program will collect data on the popular times and destinations needed for the next bid process.

Murray of the Downtowner was called up to talk about putting together a possible pilot program. He said it would take about three weeks to get a program started.

But in late September, CRA Executive Director Jeff Costello said he might have to put the program out for bid. Costello planned to meet with the Downtowner founders and consult with the CRA attorneys before letting the mayor know.

The Downtowner’s demise spurred passion on social media.

“My clients are devastated that the Downtowner would no longer be available in Delray Beach,” said Realtor Allyson Sullivan, reached by phone. “We’re praying for a resolution with the city.” 

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