Quaint and modern may cross paths over the next couple of years at Hall Area Transit.
A couple of trolley buses may be rolled out by the public transportation system in downtown Gainesville by spring 2021, possibly sharing the road with “microtransit” vehicles similar to Uber or Lyft.
The trolleys will have a bus chassis but otherwise look like a classic trolley, with brass poles, leather pulleys, open windows and “a back area where you stand off of,” said Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of Gainesville-Hall County Community Services.
They may also come with “a speaker system, so when we have big events, we can use it to transport people from parking lots to (event locations), so we’re really excited about it,” she said.
One use that may delight downtown workers is a lunchtime route “to try to alleviate some of the (noontime) traffic burden,” Moss said.
Otherwise, “we don’t have a route set yet,” she said. “We’re basically thinking the downtown square area. The whole point is a rapid system, where … you go to lunch and you know 10-15 minutes, the bus is going to be there (to pick you up).”
Aimee Hoecker, co-owner of Downtown Drafts, applauds the idea.
“I’m all about more public transportation, any way you can get it,” she said. “Lunchtime (routes) are great, but, as a bar owner, I’d like to see them expand it to nighttime, to make parking easier … and safer for our patrons.”
She added, “It would be awesome if there was a way of connecting downtown and midtown, and those businesses can work together.”
“If we’re seeing success (at lunchtime), we could go into the evening hours,” Moss said.
Also potentially benefiting from the service is the midtown area, where 400 apartments and retail or restaurant space are planned between two sites, one on Jesse Jewell Parkway at the end of the pedestrian bridge that spans that roadway near Bradford Street and the other on the old Hall County Jail site on Main Street.
“Our ‘bridge to nowhere’ is finally a ‘bridge to everywhere,’” Moss said. “We can’t wait for that to be done. It’s going to be gorgeous.”
The transit system is buying the trolleys from Wisconsin-based Hometown Trolley, which couldn’t be reached for comment.
The trolleys will cost about $191,000 apiece, with 80% of the funding from federal sources. The remaining 10% is from the state and 10% is from the city of Gainesville.
“Inspired by 19th century charm and engineered for modern day, our trolleys provide an unrivaled nostalgic experience,” the company’s website says.
“We’ve been talking about (trolleys) for a while,” Moss said, noting that they’ve become a growing trend in communities. “People like the nostalgia of a trolley.”
Christina Santee, Gainesville’s public relations manager, said she would be working with Hall Area Transit on a lunch shuttle service and “if all goes well, a dinner shuttle might also be in our future.
“Not only will these trolleys encourage visitors to (patronize) some of the best eateries in town, but they’ll also give us some much-needed traffic relief,” she said. “(They) will marry 21st century engineering with 19th century charm. We can’t wait to see people’s reactions when they hit the streets.”
It wouldn’t be the area’s first swing at this form of transportation.
A trolley ran, starting in the late 1800s and ending in the early 1900s, from the Gainesville square to three destinations, according to Times files. One route took it down Green Street to the end of Riverside Drive, where residents would go swimming; a second route went from the square to Gainesville Mill; and a third went from downtown to New Holland.
A “very nominal” fee could be required for the new trolley service. Questions are also being explored about potential trolley stops and whether to operate year-round.
“We just want to encourage participation, and the end benefit is just getting people off the roads,” Moss said.
The trolleys would be housed at Hall Area Transit’s main station at 687 Main St., Gainesville. Hall Area Transit also features a fixed-route system, Gainesville Connection, and Dial-A-Ride, a countywide curbside transportation service that requires reservations at least 48 hours before pickup.
The transportation system also is exploring microtransit, or options for a public shuttle service with trendy, app-centered pick-up services.
Hall has set a March 13 deadline for receiving proposals specifically targeting the technology behind microtransit.
On behalf of the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, the county “is seeking proposals from firms or a team of firms that can provide and maintain a demand responsive software application to allow Hall Area Transit to deliver microtransit services directly to the public using dynamically generated routes,” according to the request for proposals.
“We’re not interested in having any (company’s) drivers,” Moss said. “We’re looking for the technology we can use in vehicles we purchase.”
Hall Area Transit has federal money to buy some vehicles that are smaller than the buses normally operated by the service — such as or similar to the Ford Transit cargo van.
“We want them to be swift and nimble,” Moss said. “We just want to have the correct diversity and mixture of vehicles to meet the needs.”
The plan is to phase in the service, starting in Gainesville.
“Where there are rooftops is where we’ll concentrate the service for the first six months to a year, and as we get comfortable with the technology and how the whole process is working, then we’ll start to slowly expand it to other parts of Hall County,” Moss said.
She said she sees the service possibly starting in fall 2020.
“We are excited to see what firms we hear back from later this spring regarding what options Hall Area Transit has for possibly launching this type of service,” said Joseph Boyd, the MPO’s transportation planning director.
One factor pushing Hall’s look at microtransit is money — or the lack of it — to continue traditional operations, such as a fixed-route service.
As a public transportation agency now serving a “small urban area,” nearly half of Hall Area Transit’s operating expenses are covered by the Federal Transit Administration.
When the 2020 census recognizes Hall’s climb above 200,000 people — as estimates show — the area gets redefined as a “large urban area” and “would no longer be eligible for that 50% match,” Moss has said.
Microtransit has been considered an option to deal with dwindling funding.
“It could fill a much-needed gap,” said Renee Gerrell, who heads the MPO’s Citizens Advisory Committee.
Not only could it help a funding crunch, it would provide service on weekends or later in the evening, when Gainesville Connection doesn’t operate.
“With microtransit, you’ve got the (ability) to expand hours, so people can get rides earlier, later, on the weekends,” Gerrell said.
Mike Giles, chairman of the chamber’s Vision 2030 Transportation Committee, said he believes the Hall Area Transit efforts for both the trolley and microtransit “will enhance the quality of life for people living and working in our community.”
He added: “I hope these programs will be something that we can build on in the future, so that more of our citizens and visitors can reap the benefits of enhanced public transit.”