Laguna Beach OKs multi-year framework for contract trolley service

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Laguna Beach trolleys are scheduled to start rolling again on June 25. Photo by Jody Tiongco.

Laguna Beach has hired a contractor to provide trolley drivers and dispatchers in a deal potentially worth up to $10 million over five years.

The Laguna Beach City Council unanimously approved the agreement Tuesday with Hartford, Conn.-based LAZ Parking to run the trolleys starting June 25. This deal also includes funding for an on-demand van service set to replace neighborhood trolleys that serviced Top of the World, Arch Beach Heights, and Bluebird Canyon residents. This pilot program is set to be rolled out this fall.

Laguna Beach’s trolleys were staffed using part-time Public Works employees as trolley drivers and dispatchers prior to their furlough amid the outbreak of COVID-19 in Orange County. The trolleys will still be owned, repaired, and cleaned by Laguna Beach.

Councilmembers set the budget for the contractor’s first year at $1.93 million. City staffers anticipate 80% of the cost will be covered by state and county transit grants—the balance will be funded by parking revenue.

“We’re going to be spending more money on this than we did previously but I think we’re going to get a lot more service out of it,” Mayor Bob Whalen said.

A large number of more than 90 part-time trolley drivers employed by Laguna Beach were school bus drivers who work on weekends and during summer breaks, according to a staff report. Recruitment and scheduling of part-time drivers and dispatchers became increasingly challenging and resulted in significant increases in overtime costs. In August 2017, the City Council started annually contracting drivers to the tune of about $100,000 to fill gaps created when school districts decided to start their academic years earlier.

A single full-time city trolley driver is about $100,000, including $30,000 in annual benefit and pension costs, according to a staff report. Laguna Beach currently employs a full-time trolley driver and two part-time administrative employees who assist with payroll and other tasks.

“Our intent and hope would be that all of them would, if they’re interested in continuing to work in the city, would apply to work for the contractor,” said Michael Litschi, deputy director of public works.

A full-time transit supervisor will remain on the city payroll.

Irvine, Dana Point, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Mission Viejo, Anaheim, and Newport Beach use contractors to operate local transit services, according to a staff report. The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) also contracts out a large portion of its bus routes, including routes serving Laguna Beach.

Laguna Beach parent Carole Reagan was disappointed to see the City Council replace the neighborhood trolley routes with an on-demand van service that a number of Thurston and High School students relied on to get to and from school.

“I don’t see how a van could possibly serve the same amount of people as the trolley did, much less encourage more use of transit, which was supposed to be the city’s goal,” Reagan wrote in an email. “We’ll have to wait and see the details of the city’s plan. I also think that as long as COVID-19 is around, people aren’t going to be inclined to pack into an enclosed van. The open-air trolley is a far better option.”

Laguna Beach decided to discontinue the neighborhood routes after they consistently failed to meet the number of boardings per hour required by an OCTA grant. City staffers subsequently posted a survey of residents to learn about their transit needs. Locals tapped an on-demand transit service, accessed by the Laguna Beach Parking App, as their most popular option. Some residents had expressed concern about the large trolleys rolling up and down steep residential streets.

Austin Comp, president of the Laguna Beach Municipal Employees’ Association, didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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