Newport’s Balboa summer shuttle beats ridership expectations

The inaugural run of the Balboa Peninsula Trolley more than doubled Newport Beach’s ridership forecast, recording more than 23,000 boardings during the shuttle’s 12-weekend service this summer.

The free shuttle, which ran Saturdays and Sundays from June 17 to Sept. 3, plus the Fourth of July and Labor Day, had 23,560 boardings, or about 900 per day, according to a spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Authority, which last year awarded Newport Beach a $685,454 grant to help operate the shuttle.

The city previously expected about 11,000 boardings for the season, or about 437 per day.

Riders beat that figure in July alone, with 11,915 boardings.

Drivers kept track of ridership by counting passengers manually as they boarded the small buses and then logging the numbers on a tablet computer.

“Clearly our visitors and our residents saw a fun, functional, convenient transportation alternative system on the peninsula,” Councilwoman Diane Dixon, whose district includes the Balboa Peninsula, said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

The narrow peninsula is home to many of Newport’s top tourist draws and is known for its thick summer traffic and limited parking. The shuttle carried passengers to the Balboa Pier, Marina Park and Lido Marina Village, among other stops.

Kelly Carlson, who with her husband owns Balboa Peninsula businesses that rent bicycles, paddleboards and personal watercraft, was an early proponent of the shuttle.

She said that when customers would call her this summer saying they were circling the block trying to find a place to park near her shops in Balboa Village, she directed them to get the shuttle from the first stop on the line — the Hoag Hospital parking lot, where the city rented 40 parking spaces for shuttle passengers — and ride onto the peninsula.

“It’s a lot easier than circling around trying to find a place to park,” said Carlson, vice president of the Balboa Village Merchants Assn. and co-owner of Balboa Water Sports and Balboa Beach and Bike Boutique.

The OCTA grant, to be distributed over seven years, is funded through Measure M, Orange County’s half-cent sales tax for transportation projects.

Newport Beach hired Signal Hill-based Professional Parking Corp. to run the shuttle, and the city paid about $117,000 for the first year’s operations, with about $103,000 of that from Measure M. The balance came from the city’s Balboa Village parking revenue.

City staff and the council will further review the shuttle program later this year.

Carlson said she could see how having the shuttle as a regular feature could affect visitor behavior in the future if they know it will help them get around.

She said other tourist towns have similar shuttles and that it’s good for Newport to keep up.

“How do we compete with all the other beach towns?” she said.

In Laguna Beach, summer ridership totals for its trolley shuttle were not yet available, said city Public Works Director Shohreh Dupuis. Finalizing the numbers takes about a month, Dupuis said.

In 2016, Laguna’s traditional daily summertime trolleys carried 590,427 passengers from late June through August, according to a city staff report.

Laguna has expanded its shuttle offerings in the past couple of years beyond the traditional summer service that ferries tourists and residents to places such as the Laguna Canyon art festivals and the city’s beaches.

In 2015, the city began non-summer weekend service along stretches of North and South Coast Highway and a year later began service into some residential neighborhoods, hoping to catch people who may otherwise drive their cars into town and create more congestion.

More than 1 million people boarded trolleys in Laguna Beach in fiscal 2016-17, Dupuis said.

Staff writer Bryce Alderton contributed to this report.

hillary.davis@latimes.com

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