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Few passengers, so shuttle now plans shift to trolley

Photo: An empty GoLine Beachside Circulator making its way down Ocean Drive

The Ocean Drive shuttle bus that was supposed to relieve the parking crunch along Ocean Drive is averaging a somewhat dubious 15 passengers during its daily 12-hour shift, but the bus operator is forging ahead with plans for a new trolley in hopes of beefing up ridership.

GoLine launched the free shuttle service from Riverside Park last July 1, primarily to carry Ocean Drive hotel workers from an off-street parking area to their jobs and free up parking spaces for customers of retailers along the beachside shopping street.

But merchants interviewed by 32963 last week report hotel employees are still parking along the Ocean Driver corridor. They say some customers become frustrated looking for a space – particularly during season – and leave without shopping, costing their businesses needed revenue.

“If you can’t park, you won’t shop,” said Ron Davidson, co-owner of Exclusively Coastal, a gift shop at 3119 Ocean Drive.

And both Karen Deigl, CEO of Indian River Transit, which runs the GoLine bus service, and Vero Beach City Manager Jim O’Connor admitted the number of people using the Route 16 shuttle has not met their expectations.

“Owners of the businesses have concerns about having workers take spaces from good-paying customers,” Deigl said.

Despite the low ridership numbers, GoLine is giving the Ocean Drive shuttle another crack. It will cost about $160,000 to operate the service for another year. Vero Beach Hotel & Spa will kick in $40,000 of that amount. The hotel contributed $40,000 last year to start the shuttle.

“Change is difficult,” Deigl said, explaining why the shuttle had so few riders its first year.

She said the county and the trolley vendor are finalizing documents for the new trolley.

Don’t expect Ocean Drive business owners to be too impressed.

“It’s a waste of money,” Davidson said of the funds spent on creating and running the shuttle.

Vero Beach parking enforcement marks the tires of cars parked along Ocean and tickets those that remain more than two hours, but Davidson said it’s a common ploy for hotel workers to move their cars slightly in the same parking space to conceal the chalk mark left on the tire by parking enforcement workers.

Ocean Drive merchant Melinda Cooper walked out of her women’s clothing store, Cooper & Co. at 3435 Ocean, strolled a few steps on the sidewalk and pointed across the street at the place she said Vero Beach Hotel & Spa workers exit and re-enter when moving their cars.

She said waitresses, bartenders and other workers leave the resort property, re-park their cars along Ocean Drive or behind her building, and then sneak back inside.

Next door, John Stringer, co-owner of the J.M. Stringer Gallery at 3465 Ocean Drive, said hotel employees park in spaces behind his building that are reserved for the building’s commercial tenants.

“We have so many clients who say they can’t find parking,” Stringer said.

Developer George Heaton, who built the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa, professed surprise at the shop owners’ comments.

Heaton said workers at his hotel are required to use the shuttle and those who park on Ocean Drive will be fired. He said he thought the bus service was going well, but acknowledged that “some workers might be” parking along Ocean Drive.

Heaton said if the hotel finds out they are taking up parking spaces on Ocean, “we will terminate them.”

The shuttle makes a 20-minute loop, with users parking their cars in a lot behind the Riverside Park tennis courts. The Route 16 service is available 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., according to the GoLine signs installed in the park. 

The lack of parking along Ocean Drive is more pronounced during the busy winter months when Vero Beach’s oceanfront draws thousands of tourists and seasonal residents. During summer, the parking crunch eases up a bit, with a few open spaces here and there.

Even in summer, though, Anastasiya Grimshaw, co-owner of Estate Jewelry of Orchid Island, said many of the spaces in front of her store are filled. Grimshaw said hotel workers should be required to park at Riverside Park or some other location besides the Ocean Drive corridor and said during the season some “people don’t want to come here because they don’t find parking.”

O’Connor said some employees do use the shuttle.

“The hotels are doing what they can, in my opinion,” he said.

But he noted that during peak season, not every Ocean Drive shopper can park in front of the store of his or her choice, even if no hotel or restaurant workers take up slots. He believes GoLine’s new trolley will increase the number of riders and hopes shoppers and other visitors, as well as Ocean Drive workers, will begin to use the shuttle service.

It doesn’t appear to be used by many people at present. For example, 32963 visited the Riverside Park parking lot behind the tennis courts and did not see a single car at 8:15 a.m. Thursday. Later that day at 3 p.m., there still were no vehicles parked by the circulator shuttle signs.

Even if 15 a day are riding the shuttle, the ridership trend is headed in the wrong direction.

Last summer GoLine said 25 passengers were using the shuttle each day. By November that had dropped to 20 per day. Now that reported number has fallen another 25 percent.

Deigl said the current shuttle wrapping makes it look to some people like a Vero Beach Hotel & Spa bus. So, the new trolley – expected to be in service by Sept. 1 – will have more of a GoLine brand presence “so people will recognize it as a bus in the [free GoLine] system,” Deigl said.