The Leesburg Town Council voted this week to invest in a trolley-style bus that officials hope will bring more of a nearby outlet mall's 5 million annual customers to shops and restaurants in the historic downtown district starting this fall.
The council agreed to contribute $20,500 to the $160,000 price tag over two fiscal years. A federal grant will cover 80 percent of the bill, or $128,000, and the state will pay the rest.
"It's a great way to link the outer parts of Leesburg and the [Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets] mall with the historic district and the restaurants and shops that are downtown," said council member-elect Susan B. Horne, who worked on the trolley proposal as vice chairman of the town's economic development commission. She said she came up with the idea after seeing a similar trolley service in North Carolina.
Horne predicted that Leesburg's trolley would entice more customers from the mall to venture into the historic district and also would bring residents of nearby retirement communities into town more frequently.
The trolley, which will be free to ride, will be owned, maintained and garaged by the Virginia Regional Transportation Association (VRTA), a regional private, nonprofit provider of public transit. VRTA now operates a bus between the mall and the downtown district that costs 50 cents a ride. It carried 1,490 passengers in April, up from 1,218 in April 2003.
The bus service will be discontinued when the trolley starts running.
The trolley, with its wooden benches and open windows, will be considerably less comfortable than the bus, said Mark McGregor, chief executive officer of VRTA. Nevertheless, town officials said they expected more riders because of the trolley's novelty.
"The trolley itself is an attraction, and the numbers will always increase," said Marantha Edwards, Leesburg's tourism coordinator.
The trolley is expected to be in operation by Oct. 1 for the start of the holiday shopping season. Its exact route has not been determined, but it will travel through the historic district along Market Street, loop around Fort Evans Road and head to the outlet mall. McGregor said it probably will run from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, possibly taking time off during the coldest months. Edwards said a Tuesday-to-Saturday schedule and later hours also are possible.
The trolley will be stored in Purcellville and will be available off-hours to the town for special events for about $46 an hour. The town also could rent out the trolley for private events at a higher rate and keep the difference.
"We just see it as an opportunity to bring a unique vehicle to the community," McGregor said at the Town Council's work session Monday night. He said he expected the trolley to increase passenger volume on the town's other bus routes, offsetting losses from making the trolley free.
The trolley will probably last about 150,000 miles, or four years, before it needs to be replaced, Edwards said. It is cheaper than a trolley that was rejected by the council several years ago, primarily because it lacks a wood trim that is expensive to maintain.
In an unusual step, Leesburg Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd called for a vote during the work session. The council voted 3 to 2 in favor of investing in the trolley, with Vice Mayor Mervin V. Jackson and Town Council member Robert J. "Bob" Zoldos voting against the measure. Town Council members David Barton Schmidt and J. Frank Buttery Jr. were absent.
Zoldos and Jackson both said that they were not necessarily opposed to the trolley but that they wanted to postpone a decision until more precise figures about the cost to the town were available.
But because putting off the vote could delay the trolley's October start date, Umstattd called for a vote immediately.
"Where is this money coming out of the budget?" Zoldos asked. "No one knows yet."