The Laguna Beach Transit System is hemorrhaging money.

Municipal buses and trolleys will cost the city an estimated $2.7 million for next fiscal year. Revenue this fiscal year from fares, charters and reimbursement is about $63,000, which means the transit system is running in the red in a chronic condition.

Annual transfusions from the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and the city's parking fund keep the system alive, but both sources have problems.

"The parking fund brings in $550,000 a year, and we are spending $900,000 in transfers to the transit system," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson, a proponent of using parking funds to create more parking, as was the original intent. "If we keep spending at this rate, we will empty the parking fund."

However, the transit system currently can't function without the subsidies, City Manager John Pietig said.

Based on projections for the next 12 years, the parking fund could lose $150,000 annually unless new revenue sources are found, Pietig wrote in an email April 4.

Based on the 12-year projection, the parking fund will generate $1 million more than its costs, including the annual transfer that makes up the transit system's deficit, he wrote.

The transfer is projected to total $1.15 million over 12 years, which will reduce the parking fund by $1.8 million in the same time period, he wrote.

The current balance in the fund is about $5.2 million, Pietig wrote.

Laguna has the only full-time transit system in Orange County. The city operates the Little Blue Buses year-round and trolleys during the summer festival season and on Saturdays, partially to meet the needs of residents and visitors and partly to reduce automobile travel and its impacts within the community, according to city officials.

To encourage perimeter parking, summer shuttle buses are free and are subsidized by the city.

The city has a fleet of 12 trolleys and, until the recent acquisition of three new ones, had leased as many as nine for three months a year.

This year, the city leased six trolleys for 2012 and 2013, at a total cost of $201,600 — $16,800 per trolley, per summer — which the council approved 4 to 0.

"I will vote for this, but we really need to look at a long-term solution," Pearson said.

City officials said the annual cost of adding six trolleys to the city's fleet, each with an estimated life of 20 years, would total about the same as leasing them and would have other benefits.

The city's fleet is powered by propane, while leased trolleys are mostly gasoline powered; staff time is not required to outfit the fleet trolleys with city decals and radios only to remove them at the end of summer; and the city trolleys generally are in better condition than leased ones.

However, it takes a couple years to acquire the new trolleys, which means leasing is the only option at least for this year and 2013, Pietig said.

The council also authorized Pietig at the April 3 meeting to file an application and claim in the amount of $998,760 for Local Transportation Funds with OCTA, passed through from the state.

This year's funding is expected to cover about 36% of the city's transit operation budget. Up until the 2008-09 fiscal year, the funds covered about half the costs.

The city operates three types of transit service within its borders:

Little Blue Buses: These mainline transit buses are in service from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9:20 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturdays. Routes and timetables are posted at bus stops and at http://www.lagunabeachcity.net.

Fares are 75 cents for adults, 30 cents for seniors 65 and older, and free for children younger than 7, who must be accompanied by an adult. Anyone employed in town rides free with a 50-ride work pass from City Hall, reimbursed by the Air Quality Management District.

Summer Trolleys: Service begins June 29 and goes through Sept. 2. They run from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily, except for July 4, when service ends at 7 p.m. Trolleys are scheduled for every 20 minutes.

Charters: Charters cost $315 for a three-hour minimum per vehicle from September to mid-June. The rate for each additional hour is $106.

For more information about Laguna Beach transit, call (949) 497-0746 or email randrews@lagunabeachcity.net.

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