Cuts to Transit Service Rolled Back

Jerry Lowenter, a 39-year resident, and his guide dog ride the trolley three to four times a week along Park Avenue towards the village.  Photo by Marilynn Young.
Jerry Lowenter, a 39-year resident, and his guide dog ride the trolley three to four times a week along Park Avenue towards the village.
Photo by Marilynn Young.

By Lauren Korduner, Special to the Independent

Reversing a decision made in spring, transit service in hillside neighborhoods of Laguna Beach will not be eliminated in midday as planned nor weekend coastal trolley routes curtailed elsewhere.

Transit services will continue their off-season routes through next June following a unanimous City Council vote on Tuesday, Sept. 26. City staff will return to the council with a new analysis of transit data after the 2018 summer tourist season draws to a close, a period which should capture whether outreach efforts boost ridership outside of summer months.

Plans for midday transit cuts were approved in March, which would have limited hillside neighborhood routes to peak morning and evening hours and dropped north and south Laguna routes due to low ridership. The cuts were to expected to be effective in September.

Yet, when staff completed “a comprehensive public outreach effort,” including a direct mailer sent to all city residents outlining the intended cuts in service, a majority of respondents were against curtailing public transit services, according to a report from public works officials Shohreh Dupuis and Paula Faust. Altogether, 217 residents expressed an opinion, with only 19 supporting the cutbacks, and others expressing concerns about the system’s lack of bike racks, reliability of service and dysfunctional mobile app, the report says. More than 20 Three Arch Bay residents protested a South Laguna route cancellation, the report noted.

That last fact appeared to rankle Mayor Toni Iseman, who was keen on providing transit services to South Laguna residents.

“Three Arch Bay begged us, lobbied us as aggressively as we’ve never been lobbied on anything, promising that they’ll come and drink as much as it costs to pick them up there,” Iseman said.

“We got down there and they wouldn’t let us turn around,” she said, noting the residents of the gated community wouldn’t let the trolley past their gates.

The Ritz-Carlton stop in Dana Point currently serves as the turnaround for the Limited Coastal trolley, which makes fewer southbound stops but also stops at The Ranch resort. Iseman noted that she received complaints from South Laguna residents bypassed by trolleys already filled with passengers that had boarded at stops outside city limits.

Preliminary ridership figures show that the coastal trolley and the limited, which stopped at the Ritz Carlton, boarded 44 and 34 passengers an hour, respectively.

Council Member Bob Whalen noted that the public response was not a statistically representative sample.

Pietig agreed and recommended staff come back to council in June 2018 with more data. An updated trolley tracker app, which went live Aug. 10, designed to provide real time location information to passengers, was only rolled out in midsummer, he added. Reinstating the routes intended to be cut will cost $145,000, in addition to the $645,000 already included in the current city budget, the staff report says. About 80 percent of the city’s transit system is funded by grants, he said.

The hours of transit operation will remain as is, 6:40 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, with later hours on weekends, on routes in hillside neighborhoods, north Laguna, Laguna Canyon and to the Ritz Carlton. Free coastal trolley service is 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays. Main Line bus fares are 75 cents for adults, 30 cents for seniors and disabled persons. Children 6 and under ride free when accompanied by an adult.

Nine residents spoke during the public comment period, a majority of whom favored keeping trolley service schedules as they are now. Local artist Elizabeth McGhee says she uses the city’s public transit daily and is “grateful to have the ride home.”

“There are a lot of loyal riders who try to promote the trolley themselves, but even we don’t get information until it’s posted inside the trolley,” McGhee said. She encouraged more public outreach to promote the city’s transit system.

Resident Chris Quilter, president of Laguna Beach Seniors, took a more critical stance of the city’s trolleys. While Quilter expressed “‘huge admiration for the staff and the work they’ve done” with respect to transit and transit study, he said, “nobody likes public transportation in this town except a handful of activists.”

Quilter added that the city’s still unrealized Uber proposal, an on-demand service for seniors and the disabled, held “a great deal of potential for the community” and called it an “invaluable option for older drivers.”

Staff noted that additional funding is necessary for the program to make it functional and Uber’s payment system likely means it will run at a loss. An extra $50,000 is needed for wheel chair assisted vehicles and $18,000 for call centers for riders without smartphones, says the report. In addition, staff discovered that Uber’s payment method would require that the city pick up the entire cost of the ride upfront and later collect fares from riders, an unanticipated administrative cost that could result in a financial loss, the report says.

Faust added that the city began talks with Uber competitor Lyft as of Tuesday.



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