The Coastal Star

Delray Beach: Downtowner rides to return May 1 with two new services

By Jane Smith

The Downtowner open-air vehicles will return to Delray Beach streets in May.
The same company received a fixed-route contract to replace the downtown trolley at the March 28 Community Redevelopment Agency meeting. The two contracts carry a total value of slightly more than $1 million in the first year.
For the fixed-route service, the Delray Downtowner will supply three, 14-passenger vans.
Eventually, these vans will be powered by propane. The current trolleys run on diesel fuel, more efficient than regular gas but more polluting. The CRA wants to switch to a clean-burning fuel, such as propane.
It might be difficult to get customized propane vans by May 1, said Steve Murray, chief executive officer of the Downtowner. In that case, gas-powered vehicles would be used for the first month or so.
For its point-to-point service, the Downtowner firm will lease nine global electric motorcars, or GEMs, enabling four to be on the street and picking up passengers within the CRA area — including the Northwest and Southwest neighborhoods.
Since the CRA is paying for the service, it can operate only within the CRA boundaries. An exception is made for the fixed-route pickup from the Tri-Rail station, since those riders are transported into the CRA district and are seen as providing an economic benefit.
When the Downtowner ran its free service, it was subsidized by ads, Murray said. Its advertisers wanted only to be on the main streets in Delray Beach, such as Atlantic Avenue and Ocean Boulevard.
The electric vehicles will not carry ads in the first year, Murray said. If the CRA wants to continue with the program and allow ads on the vehicles in future years, it will split the advertising revenue with the Downtowner’s advertising partner, Vector Media, based in New York. Vector serves transit companies in six Florida cities, according to its website.
Residents supported the Downtowner offerings at the March 28 CRA meeting.
“We are a resort town. I like the look that the Downtowner is providing,” said Mavis Benson, who runs the Avalon Gallery on Atlantic and serves on the Downtown Development Authority’s board.
The Downtowner firm wowed most of the CRA board members with its woody-look vans that can carry up to 14 passengers. Two wheelchair-users also can ride.
It’s a fresh concept, said Mike Monaco, chief technology officer for the Downtowner. “We took the 1950s woody and reimagined it,” he said. “It’s not the old trolley.”
The vans, each decked out to look like a surfboard with a fin on the roof, will stop at the Old School Square garage after leaving the Tri-Rail station to pick up people who want to go east and eventually to the beach.
“That will create a park-and-ride for passengers from outside the city,” Monaco said.
That route will not travel east on Atlantic into the often-clogged downtown core. Instead, the vans will go north on Swinton Avenue, make a right at Northeast First Street, stop at the OSS garage and then continue east on Northeast First Street to Federal Highway.
Angie Gray cast the lone vote against the Downtowner’s receiving the fixed-route contract. She preferred First Transit, the current trolley operator, and its focus on safety. Its drivers have commercial licenses needed for carrying more than 15 passengers.
The company’s proposed Starcraft Allstar Ford vehicles would carry 20 passengers each and have a camera running to record sound and video. The two vans would be powered by propane.
One proposed route went to Publix on Federal Highway, which Gray thought would be useful to residents of the Northwest and Southwest neighborhoods.
The Downtowner was ranked first by the CRA’s selection committee because it submitted the lowest price of three bidders.
The trolley contract with First Transit ends April 30. The city owns the trolleys.
For the point-to-point service, the Downtowner won over Miami-based BeeFree Holdings, which was ranked first by the selection committee. Its transit offerings are operated under the name Freebee.
Both proposals offered GEM vehicles. The Downtowner’s won’t have windows; BeeFree’s offered roll-up windows.
Both companies offered apps for smartphone users that promise to say when the vehicle will arrive. The Downtowner folks said their app is better because it provides updates, has a list of popular locations based on drop-offs inside the app and reduces the wait times.
The Downtowner also held an edge because its principals live in Delray Beach, it has four electric vehicle charging sites adjacent to its offices on Northeast Fourth Avenue, and it knows the streets from six years of operating in Delray, the CRA commissioners said when explaining their votes.
Last fall, the Downtowner stopped offering its free open-air shuttle service in Delray when it changed its business model to require partnerships with the cities it served.
Next year, the city is in line to receive an $860,000 federal grant to cover the cost of four trolleys.
If the grant will cover the alternative vehicles in the Downtowner’s fixed-route service, that will lessen the burden on city taxpayers, CRA Chairwoman Shelly Petrolia said after the meeting.
She also would like to see the point-to-point service expanded to the Lake Ida area and along the beach, north and south of Atlantic Avenue.
Those areas sit outside of the CRA boundaries, so the city may have to pay for the point-to-point service expansion, while the CRA pays for comparably priced items within its taxing district, Petrolia said.

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