Trolley service

The Laguna Beach south route trolley runs during a previous summer. (Don Leach / Coastline Pilot)

Laguna Beach is about to be put to the test to determine if the city will offer trolley service year-round.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the City Council authorized staff to purchase three new trolleys and increase the service already operating during the peak tourist months of July and August, beginning in March, with help of a grant from the Orange County Transportation Authority.

Starting March 5, 2015, will be the beginning of a trial period through June. The trolleys will provide service from 4 to 11 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays. There would be up to six trolleys in service during peak times and as few as three during slower times.

The transportation grant will help fund a majority of costs, including the purchase and maintenance of three new trolleys and paying drivers.

In order to hold on to funding, the trolleys must meet certain usage quotas. At least seven passengers will need to ride each trolley every hour for the city to receive the maximum grant reimbursement, according to a city staff report.

City staff worked with Visit Laguna Beach and the Laguna Chamber of Commerce to design the schedule and route and will monitor ridership levels, City Manager John Pietig said.

The planned route stretches from the Aliso Beach Park parking lot north along Coast Highway to Cajon Street, then travels south along Cliff Drive back to Coast Highway and south to Aliso Beach, the staff report said. Trolleys will stop at the same locations used during the summer.

Once the trolleys start running year-round, 45,000 passengers would need to ride during the 42 added weeks, which exclude July and August. If the number of trolleys in service is scaled back to adjust for demand, then the total number of passengers required would be reduced proportionally.

For every passenger short of the required goal, the city will lose $8, the staff report said. The agreement is for six years, but if ridership is too low, the grant could be canceled at the end of any year, according to the staff report.

OCTA will fund 80% of the cost of operations and purchase of the trolleys. The city will pay $87,500 for the remaining costs for the trolleys, and $90,000 for off-season operating costs.

The city is using $52,00 from the current budget, $35,000 from its transit fund and will pay its portion of operations from the parking fund. Those costs will be lower the first year, $36,000, because service will run only March through July.

It might be necessary to make minor adjustments to the route during certain times to maintain the required number of riders.

Councilman Kelly Boyd wondered why the route doesn't go farther south than Aliso Beach Park, such as Mission Hospital.

Staff chose Aliso Beach because it is a large enough area for trolleys to turn around, Deputy Public Works Director Ken Fischer said.

"If it stops where we're talking about it will be hard, next to impossible, for South Lagunans to ride the trolley," Boyd said. "Our objective is getting our citizens who live here to get out of their cars. We need to concentrate heavily on own citizens."

Pietig said he would contact Mission Hospital to see if it would open up its parking lot for trolleys to turn around.

Pietig reiterated to the council that the goal is getting enough riders so the city doesn't lose grant funding.

"With traditional transit service, we have the flexibility to serve everybody even if it's not cost-effective," Pietig said. "We need to be careful. If there are not people boarding trolleys, the city will eat the cost. If it's not working, we'll be coming back to you with alternative recommendations."

Pietig will report to the council in July 2015 on how the program is going and whether any changes need to be made.