Riders Overwhelm South-Route Trolleys

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The hugely popular free summer trolleys drew capacity crowds along South Coast Highway as well as frequent complaints about over crowding and long wait times.

The City Council members heard a staff report Tuesday about results from the 2015 summer parking and trolley programs and took steps towards possible changes next year to accommodate an imbalance in trolley ridership.

Deputy City Manager Ben Siegel and transit manager Tom Toman, referred to by Mayor Bob Whalen as the “Batman and Robin of traffic control”, outlined outcomes of the second year pilot program designed to alleviate congestion downtown and along Laguna Canyon Road.

The initiatives included an expansion of parking capacity at outlying lots and the addition of trolleys to service those lots. “We had four large peripheral lots, which were quite successful,” said Toman. Additionally, some valet service and reconfigured parking fees and hours of enforcement from July through September generated $328,000 in revenue, a 17 percent increase over 2014, the report says.

Twenty-five trolleys operated on Laguna Canyon Road into the downtown, along a newly configured single route, which merged the previously separate north and south Coast Highway routes into a non-stop trip. “I am not sure it is worth continuing the El Morro route, because of lack of demand,” said Siegel, referring to the most northern peripheral parking lot access point on Coast Highway. Options for 2016 could include Irvine Cove or Emerald Bay pick-up sites, or as Whalen suggested, perhaps working with Newport Beach, which is also looking at a trolley system to bring travelers south. The southernmost ending spot for the transit is Dana Point at the Ritz Carlton.

Councilmembers questioned the traffic duo about next summer’s needs. “It seems that increasing the south trolley route makes sense,” said councilmember Toni Iseman.

City Manager John Pietig agreed, noting that “improved service on the south route for all riders” should be a priority.

Toman said the south route was the most utilized and also the most criticized for its long wait times and full loads. Staff said ridership actually declined to 656,939 compared to 704,337 in 2014 based on boardings, which declined with the non-stop Coast Highway route.

Parking, though, was also a concern, particularly over meter-feeding hours, which were extended by two hours. “Extending the time from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. brought a lot of complaints from people I know,” said resident Jackie Gallagher. “Also why in over two years has this parking meter issue not been brought before the Coastal Commission?” she asked.

Iseman questioned whether the extended enforcement times were a cause for “business being down in the summer” and asked staff to seek out merchants for feedback. Siegel said he was “skeptical that any non-food retail business was impacted by the parking changes.”

Iseman also suggested another potential source of revenue to underwrite the trolley. “Maybe we could retrofit the inside of the trolleys and sell advertisement space,” said Iseman. Councilmembers Rob Zur Schmiede and Kelly Boyd agreed, asking transit directors to look at interior advertising options.

Ashley Johnson, director of brand marketing and communications at Visit Laguna Beach, the city’s contracted promoter, said that “the trolley program was a wonderful success and the summer was great.”

 

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