Debating Ways to Keep the Wheels Rolling

Last summer's trolley riders hop a free ride towards downtown Laguna Beach.
Last summer’s trolley riders hop a free ride towards downtown Laguna Beach.

Laguna Beach’s City Council will consider options at Tuesday’s meeting on how to close a growing deficit from running transit services, whose costs have escalated 22 percent over four years to $2.4 million annually. Suggested ways to reduce the gap include hiking fares and cutting routes on the city’s mainline bus service, imposing a fee for the popular summer trolley service and allowing advertising inside trolleys.

Raising parking meter rates and parking lot fees, as well as adding new credit card meters could also help fund the system, but city staff recommends sidestepping those issues. They are to be addressed in a downtown parking management plan prepared by experts, a draft of which will be presented to the public at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10, in the city Council Chambers.

The city’s transit service consists of its mainline service (blue and white year-round buses), summer trolleys and para-transit services provided to seniors through Sally’s Fund. With the exception of the latter, the service’s operating costs have risen steadily since 2008.

Mainline bus service cost the city $1.1 million for 2012-13, compared to  $915,000 in fiscal year 2008-9. Its ridership peaked in 2009-10 and has since decreased annually.

Summer festival costs rose to $1.2 million this year compared to $935,000 in 2008. Trolley ridership continues to increase, with 581,704 boardings last summer compared to 460,692 in 2008.

The city subsidizes transit services with parking fund revenue, tapping $710,000 from the fund to cover the gap last year. Estimates show that the system’s operating deficits would more than double to $2 million over the next 14 years. Some council members have questioned the subsidy, which depletes funding for other potential projects such as the village entrance.

Staff urges the council to modify the mainline bus services and fares, analyze charging for summer trolley rides beginning in 2014 and to explore advertising opportunities inside the trolleys. They also recommend providing $50,000 to hire an expert consultant to evaluate cost saving transit measures.

Last year’s transit fund report suggested eliminating the mainline route to Dana Point’s Ritz Carlton, which costs about $45,000 a year; eliminating the service to Three Arch Bay, a route that costs about $75,000 annually; and eliminating Saturday service, which has the lowest ridership and runs a tab of $40,000 each year. That report also suggested raising adult fares to $1 from 75 cents and senior fares to 50 cents from 30 cents, to generate an estimated $85,000 in fare income compared to $70,000 presently.

Any consideration of imposing a fee for the summer trolley service would have to examine the means of efficiently collecting fares without causing significant delays on the routes.

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