Gas Trolleys Can Handle the Hills


Despite doubts from some city bus drivers, trolleys will take the hills with ease this summer, city officials maintain.

“They will make it up the hills,” said Tom Toman, the city’s deputy public works director. ”They’re gonna be brand new; they’re gonna be gas-powered.”

Unlike the current propane-gas trolleys that travel Coast Highway, the three new trolleys the city is expected to lease to travel the hillsides are gas-propelled and more powerful, said Toman. The final lease agreement is expected to be approved March 15.

Putting free trolleys in neighborhoods running every 30 minutes, said Toman, is intended to “capture” the attention of more residents, getting them out of their cars and onto city buses. An app, similar to an Uber app, will also be available, he said, and, if the pilot program is successful, the service will eventually run all week.

City buses are notorious for having trouble navigating steep and sometimes narrow streets, said Toman. Some city bus drivers complain about numerous breakdowns and repairs they’ve experienced with the city’s Mainline bus service, colloquially known as the blue-and-white line, which is also powered by propane gas.

Other bus drivers welcome the new look on Laguna’s hillsides. “More power to ‘em,” said 15-year city bus driver Rick Roby. But Roby cautions that the tail on the long trolleys traveling Coast Highway may get stuck on some of the uphill intersections.

Another full-time bus driver who started nine years ago as a summer trolley jockey said the city’s blue-and-white line isn’t built for the hills. Customized with blowers to cool down their motors, they’re “work horses” and some are ready for retirement, said Dan O’Connell. And they’re noisy, he said.

Unable to ascend the hills is “conceivable,” said City Council member Toni Iseman, a champion of the free trolley service. “That may be right,” she said, “but they’re talking about a different vehicle going up the hill.”

Regardless of the type of fuel used, some city buses are old and weary from numerous hilltop trips every day, with the oldest starting service in 2004, said Toman. “They’re always in the shop,” he said. Buses 10 years and older will be replaced next month, he said.

Gas-fueled trolleys, which meet environmental and higher-technology standards are preferable for neighborhoods because they’re quieter than propane, Toman said. The city will also use two of the newer trolleys already in its fleet to bring the hillside trolley brigade to at least five, he said, at an estimated cost of $100,000.

Trolleys will serve the neighborhoods on Friday nights and all day Saturday and Sunday from June 24 through Aug. 31 for a 10-week summer art festival season trial run. The immediate goal is to ease the standing-room only status of trolleys that run exclusively along Coast Highway.

Neighborhood trolleys will allow the city to serve local residents, according to a recent city transit report, while alleviating more downtown congestion by keeping cars at home. The trolleys will stop at existing bus stops until 11:30 p.m. on the three weekend nights, following the existing city bus routes that include steep streets such as Summit Drive, Temple Hills Drive and Nyes Place. Instead of one hour between buses, neighborhood trolleys will run a fourth route with intervals of 30 minutes and connections to the coast and canyon routes. The city’s Mainline averages 80,000 passengers a year, Toman said.

New compact and easier-to-navigate trolleys will run the hills in summer of 2017, Toman said, and possibly add more streets to the routes, including narrow and winding streets like Alta Vista Way. The city plans to lease them from Creative Bus in Chino. It takes a year for the company to fulfill the made-to-order request, Toman said. The new trolleys will be built by Hometown Trolleys, a manufacturer in Wisconsin the city has worked with before.

As far as Toman knows, there are no other cities, at least in California, that use novelty trolleys for hillside service.

San Diego, which also runs some of its 700-plus buses through hilly communities, uses compressed natural gas, said city spokesperson Rob Schupp. The CNG buses sometime struggle on high-speed highway inclines and skirt most suburban hillsides, concentrating on urban demands instead, he said. The ones that do manage the hills in places such as Pt. Loma and La Mesa fare well, he said, but most steep streets are avoided.

Before trolleys hit the hills, however, Iseman said she wants to see the southern trolley route along south Coast Highway revamped. Trolleys from Dana Point coming north on Coast Highway are typically already full by the time they reach south Laguna, she said.

Eliminating the trolley stop at the Ritz-Carlton resort in Dana Point with trolleys turning around near Crown Valley Parkway will open up space for riders in south Laguna, Iseman suggested at a recent transit study session. “We are really servicing another community,” she said of the south-route stop outside city limits. She also suggested adding another stop and turn around at The Ranch resort near Aliso Beach.


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