Weekend trolley service is returning to San Clemente from January to March 2023, per a unanimous vote from the San Clemente City Council at its meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 20.
Operating the trolley on weekends for the next three months is estimated to cost $93,230, which also covers service on the Martin Luther King Jr. (Jan. 16) and Presidents’ Day (Feb. 20) holidays.
As part of the council’s vote, it also directed staff to come back at a future meeting to present options for pilot routes, potentially adding services to other areas around town. The two current routes largely cover the downtown, Pier Bowl and North Beach corridors.
Some potential routes suggested Tuesday night include a service that would travel up and down Avenida Pico, and one that would connect southern San Clemente to downtown.
“We’ve heard a number of community members interested in different locations even as you’ve heard tonight, referencing hotels in south San Clemente,” Economic Development Officer Jonathan Lightfoot said of why staff didn’t recommend a specific pilot route.
Lightfoot added that officials associated with San Clemente State Beach expressed their own interest in seeing a line connect to the beach area.
When Councilmember Mark Enmeier asked whether low rider counts during the slower winter months would reflect negatively in future discussions, Lightfoot shared his opinion that city-tracked data showing seasonal variations in trolley ridership could help contextualize staff’s projection of monthly services.
Mayor Chris Duncan also questioned whether the two trolleys had to be used on the same pilot or could be split into separate routes.
The negative effect on headways, or the time interval between two vehicles traveling in the same direction on the same route, was a reason to keep the trolleys on one route, according to Lightfoot.
“I think our riders have gotten accustomed to that approximately 15-minute headway,” Lightfoot said.
Councilmember Victor Cabral expressed his concerns over how the winter trolley extension was brought to council, saying he didn’t favor addressing issues in a piecemeal manner. He spoke about how the trolley’s initial service during the summer months was lengthened to the holiday season before Tuesday’s proposal was presented.
In response, Lightfoot explained that trolley operations had been immensely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Orange County Transportation Authority, which funds most of the trolley program through a Measure M2 (Project V) grant, allowed monies that were unused because of a service cancellation in 2020 and other periods of non-operation to be carried over into the future.
Continued outdoor dining that limited downtown parking incentivized the council to keep the trolleys going, leading up to the most recent extension opportunity.
“I have also outlined (in the staff report) that carryover is not available in years moving forward,” said Lightfoot. “The third recommendation is also an ask of the council to provide direction of what you would like to see future operations look like.”
The council also directed staff to pursue a scope change request through OCTA’s semiannual review process to seek approval for any desired changes to the trolley’s season schedule, as OCTA has not reviewed any expanded service beyond 2023, according to the report.
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Knoblock favored a route through the city’s southern section, as he described the experience of visitors to the area and Trestles Beach.
“They kind of scratch their heads and say, ‘Where’s the wonder? I heard this was a wonderful place,’ ” Knoblock said. “We need to do more in that part of town.”
Enmeier—a freshman councilmember along with Cabral—added that “every single person” he spoke to throughout his campaign was excited about the potential for increased transportation within San Clemente, and he also said it could be a method to collect more revenue.
Duncan said he had heard the same sentiment, but joked, to Cabral’s concerns, that the residents weren’t responsible for budgeting.
The $93,320 used for the appropriation comes entirely from the General Fund with no reimbursement from OCTA, Lightfoot said in response to Duncan’s question about funding, but is paid for in part by fees the city collects from restaurant’s participating in the outdoor dining program.
“The city has received, so far, about $46,000 from the first installment of outdoor dining (fees),” said Lightfoot. “We will be sending out the second round—that’s invoices for $50,000—this week, due in January.”
There will also be two additional rounds, to total around $150,000 in revenue next year, according to the city.
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