Laguna Beach trolleys to roll again in June

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A Laguna Beach Trolley on Cliff Drive. Photo by Jody Tiongco.

Laguna Beach’s trolleys are set to start rolling again as early as June 25, more than a year after the pandemic forced city officials to park their public transit fleet.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, city leaders said restarting the trolleys is necessary to accommodate transportation for the millions of visitors expected to flood the town after a year of quarantine. Passengers will be able to park at free or relatively-low priced lots, hop on the trolleys, and ride to destinations like beaches and the festivals.

City staffers have proposed restarting trolley service along Coast Highway to accommodate the expected demand for access to city beaches. They’ve also pitched providing service from the Act V and Laguna College of Art + Design parking lots to the art festivals.

Laguna Beach will join other south county cities including Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano, and San Clemente in offering trolley service this summer. Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel are not planning to offer transit services during this period. Newport Beach is waiting for direction from its city council, according to a staff report.

The Orange County Transportation Authority has continuously operated its buses during the pandemic as an essential service under guidelines from state and county health officials.

All Laguna Beach trolley passengers and drivers will be required to wear face coverings, a hand sanitizing station will be installed on each vehicle, and passengers from different households must social distance. Trolley passenger capacity may be reduced up to 50% to accommodate these restrictions.

The trolleys would be operated by contracted drivers, rather than part-time city employees, according to a staff report.

City officials are planning a $68,000 lease with Providence Mission Hospital Laguna Beach for 110 parking spaces on weekday evening and weekends. These spaces are made available to the public free of charge.

Laguna Beach will also consider leasing 150 spaces from LCAD during the summer months on Weekends. Motorists would be charged $5 per day. Visitors can park at LCAD and take a free trolley service to the art festivals and downtown.

City staffers are also working with the Irvine Co, to again use the Spectrum Terrace business complex near the 133 and 405 freeway interchanger to provide free parking to about 100 vehicles on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. This parking program is largely funded by an Orange County Transportation Authority Grant.

Before the pandemic’s start, councilmembers were considering whether to eliminate or scale down neighborhood trolley service due to low ridership from Top of the World, Arch Beach Heights, and Bluebird Canyon. In January 2020, neighborhood routes continued to fall short of the council’s aspirational metric of 10 boardings per hour.

To replace hourly neighborhood trolleys, city staffers will return this summer with a pilot program for an on-demand passenger van service that would be accessed through a mobile app or phone number, said Michael Litschi, deputy director of public works. This program could be operational as early as this fall.

Councilmember George Weiss encouraged staff members to charge on-demand riders a fee for this service.

“It seems to me that’s a premium service that a lot of people would want to take advantage of who don’t want to drive downtown and don’t want to drive to other parts of Laguna during the high-peak season and even non-peak seasons,” Weiss said.

Councilmembers’ decision to restart trolley service was welcomed by Sandy Morales, president and CEO of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce.

“I applaud the Council for all the work they’re doing to get Laguna Beach back in action,” Morales said. “They’ve been working to install the correct guidelines so it will be safe. Yes, it will be limited but it will help the retail as well as the restaurants which is good for everyone.”

The summer trolley service schedule is slated to conclude as usual on Labor Day, Sept. 6. At that time, a slimmed-down, off-season trolley service will begin.

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