Readying for Summer’s Free Ride

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Photographer Frankie Anthony used a long exposure to capture Laguna’s summer trolley on Cliff Drive several years ago. Photo by Frankie Anthony
Photographer Frankie Anthony used a long exposure to capture Laguna’s summer trolley on Cliff Drive several years ago. Photo by Frankie Anthony

Mark your calendars. The city’s free trolley service rolls out Friday, June 28. Then visitors and residents alike can park their cars in outlying lots or leave them in the driveway and gad about town without another thought to hunting down a parking space or evading DUI checkpoints.

Heralded by the clang of a now familiar bell, 18 trolleys will pick riders up around town at roughly 20-minute intervals for 10 weeks through Sept. 1. Their schedule, unchanged from recent years, runs from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily, except for July 4 when service ends at 7 p.m. Bolstering the trolley fleet, the city’s three blue and white mainline buses also run free of charge for the same duration on a slightly different schedule, 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

Worried about when to leave the Sawdust Festival in order to catch a ride to honor your dinner reservation in South Laguna? No problem. Anyone concerned about wait times can now download a trolley tracker app to their smart phone by following a link from the city’s web site that will supply real time info about when the next trolley can be expected at a given stop.

The trolley’s three routes include along Laguna Canyon Road from the ACT V parking lot to the downtown bus depot at 375 Broadway Street, with stops at the Pageant of the Masters, Art-A-Fair, and Sawdust Festival; the North Route serving North Coast Highway from Viejo Street to Cliff Drive along Heisler Park to the Broadway bus depot; and the South Route, heading to South Coast Highway from the depot and continuing south to Ritz Carlton Drive.

For detailed information on route maps and schedules, consult the city’s web site.

Ridership remains strong on summertime trolleys, often jammed with foreign-language visitors, the salt-and-sand encrusted, locals with patience for innumerable stops and Pageant ticket holders armed with blankets and wraps. Last season’s boardings of 581,667 passengers kept pace with 2011, up from 460,692 in 2008, according to city reports. Who doesn’t like a free ride?

The future may hold even better services. Wait times would be cut by five minutes if the city wins a grant from the Orange County Transportation Authority to increase the fleet to 21 trolleys. The same grant would extend free trolley service to non-summer weekends for several months, a move applauded by locals. Have patience, though. If the grant is approved, weekend trolley service wouldn’t kick in until the second year of the grant, said Deputy Public Works Director Ken Fischer.

Besides being fun to ride and a practical way of getting around town, especially for tipsy diners, an efficient trolley system is essential to easing traffic congestion downtown by encouraging visitors to park in peripheral lots, points out a recent parking management study.

What’s more, the trolleys prove a boon to some businesses along Coast Highway. Laguna Beach Books’ owner Jane Hanauer said that, unlike drivers busy minding the traffic and pedestrians, riders have the leisure to window shop as they roll along and will often hop off at the next stop to get a closer look at the HIP district boutiques when something catches their eye.

And while Laguna’s City Council looks for new revenue to close a growing deficit for operating transit services, which cost the city $2.4 million annually to operate, they rejected imposing fares for riders, an option under consideration. Instead, on Tuesday council members endorsed a $50,000 contract with IBI Group, a Canadian company with an Irvine office, to analyze transit services, whose costs have escalated 22 percent over four years.

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