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Laguna Beach to cut bus service and try Uber for seniors

It won't be long before the opportunity to catch a bus is limited on weekdays or completely unavailable in parts of Laguna Beach.

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to cut the hours of the city's mainline bus service, which has suffered from declining ridership for the last six years, according to a staff report.

Come September, residential routes in north and South Laguna will be eliminated.

Service in Top of the World, Arch Beach Heights and Bluebird Canyon will be reduced on weekdays though extended on the weekends. The hours will be 6:30 to 9 a.m. Mondays through Fridays, 2:15 to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 2:15 to 11 p.m. Fridays, 9:30 to 11 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays.

Buses currently travel through these neighborhoods from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturdays.

"In the middle of the day, if you have a car and you can drive, we're finding most people drive," City Manager John Pietig said, referring to the decision to reduce weekday service.

Meanwhile, council members gave staff the go-ahead to contract with Uber, the on-demand ride service company, for a six-month trial period expected to begin in July to ferry seniors to their destinations.

Also, the neighborhood trolley service — which covers Top of the World, Arch Beach Heights and Bluebird Canyon — would run later, until 11:30 p.m., during the busy summer months when Laguna is teeming with tourists and the city's famed art festivals are in full swing.

The summer and the weekend, non-summer trolley services remain essentially the same — a sticking point was how much service to provide to the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, the southernmost stop on the Coast Highway route.

Bus ridership has steadily declined from 97,000 passengers in 2010 to 84,137 last year, the report said.

Resident Karen Schwager takes the bus to run errands in town and said there is value in having the service available after 9 a.m. on weekdays.

"I ride the bus frequently," Schwager said. "If the bus stops going up the hill at 9 o'clock, what are my choices? I can walk up the hill, which is fine. It's good exercise. If I've got packages, that is not going to work."

The city will notify residents of the changes, possibly through neighborhood meetings, public works director Shohreh Dupuis said.

There could be some wiggle room on the times after residents weigh in, Dupuis said Wednesday.

"If someone says we want to end at 5:45 p.m. or 6 p.m., we're willing to look at it," Dupuis said.

The goal is to eventually replace all buses with trolleys, which are "cheaper to maintain and purchase," Dupuis said.

Laguna officials have said trolleys offer greater flexibility too, because riders can flag them down, whereas buses have fixed stops.

Regarding the senior service, Laguna currently contracts with the nonprofit Sally's Fund to provide rides for free to passengers at least 60 years old.

About half the rides per month take seniors to the Laguna Beach Community & Susi Q Center in a van. Door-to-door service and certain additional assistance for seniors in need have been available as well, the report said.

Councilman Steve Dicterow said he was concerned about the suggestion that the city's contribution to Sally's Fund be cut by $38,000, nearly half of its current allotment of $78,000.

He also worried that seniors would be jolted by the change to Uber. To assist them, however, the city would handle the booking of the Uber vehicle, the staff report said.

Even if Uber service is eventually adopted, the need for Sally's Fund would continue since it will be able to handle the seniors who need extra assistance. Uber would be used only by the physically able.

"I think it's too drastic a cut and a transition should be slower," Dicterow said. "I think for a lot of seniors, even if all they are doing is going to the senior center, this is their life.

"They go with Sally's Fund because it gives them comfort of being with those people of whom they feel secure."

The council ultimately directed staff to gradually reduce the city's contribution to Sally's Fund while it tests Uber.

bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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