By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
Laguna Beach will cancel its extended weekend neighborhood trolley service effective Sept. 30 after declining ridership over the last two years forced the Orange County Transportation Authority to pull its grant funding.
The change impacts routes servicing Top of the World, Bluebird Canyon, and Arch Beach Heights from Friday through Sunday. The grant’s terms require the city to reimburse OCTA for about $130,000 spent to purchase a trolley, which will serve other routes in Laguna Beach.
As a compromise with affected residents, Mayor Bob Whalen proposed using city funds to restore the routes from June 18 to Sept. 30, 2020, with the condition that it will be canceled if ridership doesn’t increase to a level that’s eligible for grant funding.
“The fact is in the off-season months, I don’t think you’re ever going to get ridership,” Whalen said.
Paula Faust, deputy director of public works and transit manager, said the city stands to save at least $205,000 per year by entirely canceling the weekend neighborhood trolley and possibly another $120,000 in fixed operating costs down the road. Over the last two years, the weekend neighborhood trolley’s ridership averaged 4.7 passengers per hour at a cost of $27.50 per passenger, according to a staff report.
Gene Felder, president of the Top of the Word Homeowners Association, was among the residents Tuesday who spoke about the inaccurate and confusing smartphone app developed by Visit Laguna Beach to educate riders about trolley routes and schedules.
City Manager John Pietig said he’s not happy with Visit Laguna’s app.
“They have really enjoyed and advocated for hosting it on their platform for years and it’s just not working,” Pietig said. “We have to get it away from Visit Laguna and I’m planning to have that conversation with them very soon.”
Pietig said that going forward, the trolley tracker system needs to be a standalone app that can be quickly accessed.
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow said he was unhappy to cancel the weekend trolley service and thinks ridership could be increased with a better smartphone app, greater predictability and certainty of arrival times, and giving residents the ability to flag down any trolley driver for a ride.
Councilmember Toni Iseman proposed working with Dicterow to continue the conversation with residents and make recommendations on trolley ridership.
“Steve, I hear a subcommittee forming, that you and I will come up with the recommendations from [members of] the public that are here tonight of things that will make it easier for our ridership to grow,” she said.
Dicterow said he was happy to wok on the issue with Iseman.
Miles Riehle, 16, of Arch Beach Heights, said the trolley is his primary mode of transportation, adding that both Uber or Lyft have stepped up their enforcement against drivers who provide rides to customers under 18 years old. The City Council has previously discussed offering ride-hailing vouchers as an alternative to trolley service.
“The strict drivers will just kick you out and say I can’t give you a ride,” Riehle said. “If you were going to reimburse people for ride-sharing, it would prevent people like me from using it because I’m under that age.”
Riehle added that he worked over the summer as a trolley steward and said 80 percent of people riding trolleys didn’t know the schedule and the difference between the various trolleys.
“If we were able to just differentiate between the services, I think that would really help,” he said. “People would know this is the one that goes up to [their] house.”
On Oct. 29, the City Council is scheduled to review weekday trolleys, known as the Main Line, and potentially cancel the service because of poor ridership, Pietig said.