With an anticipated decline in county funding for trolley services and an increase in anticipated public transportation needs, the San Clemente City Council voted unanimously Tuesday, May 16, to request more money from the Orange County Transportation Authority.
City staff needed the council’s authorization to send a letter of interest for the OCTA’s 2023 Call for Projects under Project V—the agency’s Community-Based Circulators Program that reimburses county cities for developing additional transit options.
Project V reimburses 90% of the city’s costs for the downtown Red Line route that three trolleys service, and the Blue Line that travels from the Outlets at San Clemente to Dana Point, which uses two trolleys.
A new OCTA grant is expected to provide the city with about $150,000 less in funding for the next three fiscal years compared to the previous grant covering the current fiscal year, according to a city agenda report. The decrease in funds, the city said, won’t cover service costs related to the city’s trolley program.
“The City can fully operate during FY 2024 at the 90% reimbursement level, however, due to the carry over grant funds from underutilization during (FY) 2020-21,” the city said. “The City has about $700,000 in carry over funds available. These carry over funds will not sustain operations through FY 2027.”
With that in mind, the city drafted the letter that outlined its wishes for future transportation efforts in San Clemente before OCTA opens the award opportunity in November. OCTA is expected to announce awards in spring 2024, in time to plan for Fiscal Year 2024-25.
The letter includes suggestions for modifying the Project V grant standards so the city could replace the incoming grant with a new agreement, receive additional funding and have support for overlapping transit routes.
Since 2020, the city has extended trolley services beyond the traditional summertime schedule that runs from Memorial Day weekend to the final weekend of September. Back in December 2022, the City Council approved another extension for the trolleys to operate on weekends through the remainder of winter and spring.
“The current grant limitation of $550,000 is no longer sufficient to cover operating expenses of existing services,” according to the city’s report. “In FY24, continued operations of the daily summer service plus annual Saturday/Sunday service on one route (Red Line/downtown) will cost $650,000. That amount is just to maintain the status quo.”
An optimally expanded program, according to the city, would include daily summer service on the Red and Blue lines from May 1 to Sept. 30, service on Fridays through Sundays every weekend of each year, service for up to 10 events, and new Green and Yellow lines heading south towards San Clemente State Beach and east along Avenida Pico, respectively.
The city wrote that $1.3 million would cover the trolley’s operational costs, adding that it desired an annual budget cap of $2 million to continue the SC Rides pickup service and last-mile transportation.
Economic Development Director Jonathan Lightfoot also presented the council with an update on the Green Line pilot route that covers the southern stretch of El Camino Real and is scheduled to end on May 21.
To extend the program into the summer, the city would have to use white shuttle buses provided by the Green Line operator, LAZ Parking. The cost to run two shuttles for 72 hours per week, at $100 per hour, would cost $245,000 for the summer season.
Lightfoot also said the city couldn’t immediately fulfill a suggestion from Mayor Chris Duncan to merge the Green and Blue lines, as the current grant agreement requires 15-minute headways for each stop.
“The second (problem) is that the grant agreement is specific to the locations and stops,” said Lightfoot.
The city can request minor adjustments to the routes in March and October, but cannot replace an existing line. Lightfoot said that such a suggestion could be included in the city’s letter to OCTA for implementation in FY2025.
On weekends, the Green Line saw just under 1,000 riders on average, roughly doubling OCTA’s standard for ridership.
The council asked for staff to come back with a report on options and estimates for extending the city’s Green Line service.
Starting Memorial Day, May 29, the Red Line and the Blue Line trolleys will operated daily, with services running Monday through Friday from noon to 10 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
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