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The Wheels Are in Motion

By Lillian Boyd

“Is the trolley up and running?”

“We’re doing a test run. It will be up and running Memorial Day weekend!” Dana Point Public Works Director Matt Sinacori answered a driver passing by the city trolley.

“Wahoo!” the driver cheered as she continued on.

The dry run—conducted on Wednesday, April 7, to iron out route details and timing—came after Dana Point City Council approved the reestablishment of the trolley program the previous night. After a year’s hiatus due to COVID-19, the trolley program’s return is a momentous occasion, said Sinacori.

The trolley program was first conceptualized back in 2008, when the cities of Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano proposed a tri-city trolley service to Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). After approval for research, and eventually approval for funding, the idea finally came to fruition the summer of 2015.  In Dana Point, the inaugural season had shuttles with decals resembling classic woodie wagons, with the idea that if the program proved successful, the vehicle provider would purchase open-air trolleys for ongoing daily summer service. The following summer, the city expanded to four trolleys and, in 2017, expanded to a fifth trolley.

But in March 2020, the State of California issued an executive order directing residents to stay at home with the exception of performing essential activities in response to COVID-19. Since that time, the city’s seasonal and special event trolley service has been suspended and most recreation programs and city-sponsored events postponed or canceled.

Officials with City of Dana Point, LAZ Parking and County of Orange conducted a dry run of the trolley program on Wednesday, April 7, ahead of its Memorial Day weekend return. Photo: Lillian Boyd

“The city worked with city council and other stakeholders around the community and came up with new routes. Unfortunately, we never got to run those routes. It broke our hearts. We had everything ready to go,” Sinacori said in a presentation to city council. “We can’t tell you how thrilled we are to try these (routes) finally.”

Jennifer Anderson, a senior management analyst for the City of Dana Point, has been with the city for 22 years and has played an instrumental role in the trolley service’s success and growth, said Sinacori.

“The trolley has become a mainstay of summer time in Dana Point,” Anderson said. “We love how much the community loves the trolley. We are thrilled to see its return for the summer.”

Anderson saw to the OCTA grant application process, has managed day-to-day operation for the trolley service, as well as marketing and coordinating public relations for the program.

While the trolley service is often utilized as a fun, summer amenity, it also serves as a necessary method of transportation for some riders.

“Thanks so much for doing this. The trolley is what has helped me be able to get home sometimes,” one man said to Sinacori and Anderson after approaching them at one of the stops on Monday’s dry run.

With the city serving as a major hub to neighboring South Orange County cities, the routes aim to help riders get to the cities of Laguna Beach, Dana Point, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, and the community of Rancho Mission Viejo. According to Sinacori, the new routes this year will improve overall connectivity.

The City of Dana Point is a recipient of grant funds under Project V from the OCTA to operate the trolley program. In light of the pandemic, the OCTA Board of Directors modified its guidelines to be a bit more lenient on cities; however, funding for the program will still be tied to ridership.

In order to meet the minimum requirements for OCTA reimbursement, Sinacori says city staff has run “several scenarios to develop a low-risk operating plan that will secure the needed ridership to receive the maximum allowable funding.” A staff report recommends that ridership be monitored daily to allow the program to be modified or canceled, if needed. Dana Point has coordinated closely with the cities of Laguna Beach, San Clemente, and San Juan Capistrano for consistency of program operating periods.

Health and Safety

In order to meet state health and transit guidelines, staff is currently planning to reduce capacity to provide the required social distancing. Riders and trolley drivers are required to wear face coverings over the nose and mouth while riding the trolley—until further guidance is received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each trolley will be stocked with a supply of face coverings for riders who do not have them.

Each trolley will be cleaned hourly to sanitize all high-touch areas and passenger seating. Deep cleaning of each trolley will be conducted on a weekly basis after operating hours. Touchless hand sanitizer dispensers will be available on each trolley for riders to use before and after riding the trolley.

Passengers wishing to board the trolley shall wait for on-board passengers to exit the trolley before entering the trolley.

Operating Dates and Times

Dana Point’s trolley operation will begin on Friday, May 28, for Memorial Day weekend, from noon to 10 p.m. Hours will be 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday and 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Memorial Day. The trolleys will offer weekend service only through Sunday, June 20. Daily trolley service will begin on Friday, June 25, and continue through Labor Day, Sept. 6. For daily service, hours will be noon to 9 p.m. from Monday through Thursday; noon to 10 p.m. on Friday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday.

The City of Dana Point is contracting with LAZ Parking, the operator of the trolley service program.

“Dana Point was actually the first city to take a chance on us,” said Ralph Caldin, LAZ Parking Vice President of Transportation. “We’re thrilled to be able to get them up and running again with a trolley service.”

But with the uncertainty of how popular public transit ridership will be as the world recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, there is some cost risk for the city.

Reimbursement of program costs through Project V is tied directly to the number of passenger boardings (per vehicle service hour) for maximum reimbursement. If passenger boarding exceeds the minimum requirements, OCTA pays the vast majority of program costs based on a fixed percentage. Pre-COVID, the reimbursement of costs with the fixed percentage was easily attained due to the historical success of the program, which made budgeting straightforward, according to Sinacori.

But if the minimum performance standards are not achieved, the reimbursement of cost pivots to a maximum subsidy per passenger boarding of $10.05 and could result in an increase in program costs for the city (about $200,000).

“We have the option to pull the plug and stop the bleeding if we aren’t getting the ridership. We can stop the trolley program and not incur more losses,” said Mike Killebrew, Dana Point City Manager. “But we’re not going to let it get to that point. If I need to telecommute, riding the rails, we will hit our numbers.”

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