Free Trolleys and Fee Hikes Reduce Congestion

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Summer-like weather has city officials pressing for more measures to curb congestion.
Summer-like weather has city officials pressing for more measures to curb congestion.

Fee Hikes Aim to Discourage Downtown Parking

Banking on the success of last summer’s efforts to tame congestion, the City Council signed off on similar measures for the upcoming festival season.

These include rate hikes for parking meters and lots taking effect in July to incentivize day trippers to leave their cars in cheaper peripheral lots and ride the free trolleys into town and the beaches.

Even before outlining this summer’s strategy, Deputy City Manager Ben Siegel reported on the runaway success of the non-summer weekend trolleys that hit the road March 6. He said city officials are already investigating expanding the service.

On the second weekend, ridership reached over 8,200, said Siegal, crediting the marketing efforts of Visit Laguna Beach and the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce and great weather. Residents from Three Arch Bay and managers of the Ritz Carlton hotel in Laguna Niguel want the route extended farther south, said Siegal, who is working with the Orange County Transportation Authority to expand its trolley underwriting grant.

Hotels have reported that their guests are thrilled with the off-season trolleys, said Mayor Bob Whalen. “So I think we hit a home run on that one.”

Meanwhile, the gears are in motion to tweak summer parking rates, expand summer festival parking permit options and extend the summer trolley service north to El Morro Elementary, where parking lots go unused.

Last summer, on-street meter rates bumped to $2 an hour on weekends, holidays and weekdays after 5 p.m. The move generated few complaints and made no impact on occupancy, which remained at 95 to 100 percent on evenings and weekends.

Given that success, rates will rise even more this year during the 10-week festival season. They’ll hit the $2 an hour mark on weekdays, from the current rate of $1.50, and bump up to $3 an hour on weekends, holidays and weekdays after 5 p.m. Off-street hourly lots will be adjusted for consistency with on-street rates.

Parkers will also have to pony up for their space until 9 p.m. this summer, as they did last summer, with the three-hour parking limit per space ending at 9 p.m.

The goal is to encourage long-staying beach parkers to use peripheral lots and free spaces downtown for customers of local merchants, according to the staff report.

Siegel said the changes could generate up to $200,000, while the overall costs to implement the 2015 parking program are estimated at $180,000.

Rates for the Forest and Lumberyard parking lots downtown will also mirror last summer’s program, at $10 on weekdays and $15 on weekends, holidays and weekdays after 5 p.m.

Motorists will still pay $7 a day to pull into the 264-space ACT V lot in Laguna Canyon. But this summer the city is imposing fees on some formerly free peripheral lots, charging $5 for a spot in the 150-space lot at Mission Hospital or the 130-space lot at Laguna College of Art & Design. The 50 spaces in the Boat Canyon shopping center, if the city can secure them again this year, will remain free.

Previously, the city’s northern trolley service route ended at Cajon Street. Now, residents in Emerald Bay, Smithcliffs and Irvine Cove, as well as visitors driving in from the north, can take advantage of an agreement with the school district allowing El Morro to serve as a trolley turnaround and additional $5-a-day parking spaces.

The plan is not without critics.

Resident Pat Menne, who lives on 10th Avenue, worried that charging $5 for the previously free parking at Mission Hospital would result in more visitors seeking the all-too-few free spots in neighboring streets. She also wondered whether Crystal Cove State Park visitors might monopolize the $5 a day spaces in the El Morro lot, rather than pay $15 a day in the nearby state lot.

Automated pay stations will replace lot attendants this year at ACT V, as well as at the Community Susi Q Center and Hagan Place parking lot, which will boast better signage and charge $5 a day for available spots.

The city will continue to offer the summer festival parking permit at $20, which is valid at ACT V for the entire season. But this year the festival employees and artists who purchase them will have another option in a new $30 permit valid not only at ACT V but also on weekends and weekday evenings after 5 p.m. at the Community and Susi Q Center and on weekends at the Boys and Girls Club, this last through a valet service.

A pilot valet service open to the general public at that location last year failed to meet expectations, but a staff report predicts it will be more effective if used exclusively by permit holders.

Three residents questioned whether the valet service lived up to their agreement to protect play areas from leaking cars. “I can tell you from personal observation that there was no system of putting mats under cars,” said canyon resident Penny Milne.

But Siegel found no fault with the valets. He also noted that the Boys and Girls Club found value in the arrangement.

City officials plan to expand on the signage and marketing program they rolled out last summer with more electronic message boards near peripheral lots, improved maps and marketing materials, and a dedicated parking website, among other strategies.

Consultants and staff will again collect data and survey visitors to measure the success of the program.

 

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