Trolley-Like Transit Called Just the Ticket

Times Staff Writer

The way Joe Marsico sees it, hundreds of trolley look-alikes someday will link Southern California from the desert to the sea. And the catalyst for this vast transit network will be Whittier, which will prove trolley-type buses are cheaper and more attractive to commuters and shoppers than conventional minibuses.

For seven years this has been a dream of the longtime community activist. But there's a hitch. It's called reality.

Whittier already has a transit system, a $1-million bus line that began in July and so far is functioning smoothy and is on target in terms of riders, city Transportation Manager Linda Creed said.

Because of the system's relatively smooth start, Creed said, the city is not interested in Marsico's plan. She said Whittier is committed to its system at least until July, 1987, when its contract expires with a Wilmington-based transit company.

Two-Year Agreement

The firm, Transit Contractors, has a two-year agreement to supply buses and drivers and to maintain and fuel the four buses that run along 22 miles of city streets Monday through Friday.

Despite the city's reluctance, Marsico is convinced that in time the diesel-powered trolley-like buses will replace the shiny minibuses--Marsico calls them "plastic buses"--now carting residents around the city.

The trolley look-alikes are outfitted in a turn-of-the-century motif, with oak benches and paneling and etched glass. Otherwise, they drive and perform like a conventional bus.

It's not the first time that Marsico, 43, has tried to sway City Hall.

For several years during the mid-1970s, Marsico walked the streets of Uptown Village at night warning residents about approaching tow trucks. He challenged the legality of a city policy that allowed police to tow vehicles parked on streets scheduled for sweeping. Seen as a modern-day Paul Revere by some, he eventually helped persuade officials to change the tow-away ordinance.

Full-Time Activist

During the towing controversy, Marsico quit his job as a pool maintenance man to pursue community causes full time. Although vague about his source of income, he said he receives no money from anyone for his community work.

His persistence is somewhat legendary--and annoying among city officials. He is a fixture at council meetings and made so many requests for documents from City Hall clerks that City Manager Tom Mauk ruled that Marsico must funnel all his requests through Mauk's office.

Marsico says his plan is simple and affordable. The city, he said, could purchase a fleet of the trolley-like buses now with its share of Proposition A money, a half-cent transit tax that is divided among 83 cities in the county based on population. The city has more than $1.2 million in Proposition A reserves, which Marsico said would pay for at least 10 buses. A sales representative for Boyertown Trolleys, a manufacturer in Boyertown, Pa., said a 20-passenger bus costs about $95,000.

Once purchased, Marsico insists, the trolley-like buses would pay for themselves. Advertising on the outside of the bus, he said, could generate about $20,000 a year per bus for the city. At the same time, private groups could charter the buses after hours for parties, weddings or special events, he said.

Tested His Theory

To test his theory, Marsico convinced the Pennsylvania bus builder to stop in Whittier recently as part of its national sales tour. After years of peddling pictures and models of the buses to skeptical city officials and merchants, Marsico was finally able to demonstrate his idea firsthand. For several days, he cruised Whittier in a 27-foot bus, ringing the bell and wearing a straw bowler.

As he always does, Marsico attracted a lot of attention. He also attracted police, who warned the eager trolley dreamer to not encourage people to ride in the vehicle because he was not properly licensed to carry passengers.

"All ages love trolleys," said Marsico, who resembles a trolley conductor in the Gay '90s with his handlebar mustache and slicked-back hair. "When that bell rings," he said, "children jump up and down and laugh; middle-aged people smile and wave, and old folks look and remember the good old days of the Los Angeles 'Red Cars.' "

Marsico said the buses would cut down on traffic and parking problems, particularly in the rapidly developing Uptown Village because more people will want to ride the buses than drive to shopping.

Wishes to Direct System

Marsico admits he would like to be named director of the system. He said he has worked "18 hours a day, six days a week" since the idea came to him in the late 1970s.

At the time, he was attempting to design a practical public transportation vehicle. Then one day, he realized his rough drawings resembled a trolley.

From that point on, he has become a "trolley-holic." The small Uptown Village home he shares with his wife and two sons is filled with dozens of miniature trolleys. Even the base of a living-room lamp is a porcelain trolley.

Next to the walkway leading to Marsico's front door sits a three-foot-high trolley he built several years ago to "remind me every day of my mission."

Novelty Item

A novelty item used by amusement parks, tourist attractions and some cities for promotional purposes, the trolley look-alikes have captured the interest of only a few Southern California municipalities.

Santa Monica and Redondo Beach agreed last year to allow a private operator to run the buses in those cities at the operator's expense.

But the operator, David Shumway of American Trolley Inc., said fares, advertising and charter fees simply have not been enough to cover operating costs, so he's now seeking a subsidy from those cities.

A third beach city, Manhattan Beach, has agreed to pay about $2,000 for American Trolley to start service.

Whittier, however, wants no part of the buses.

"This city spent many months researching its current bus system, and up to this point we are very comfortable with the results," said Creed, adding that about 500 people a day are paying a quarter to ride the Whittier minibuses.

Creed said she hopes that by next July, the first anniversary of the bus line, daily ridership will top 650.

But Marsico is adamant: "Whittier has a chance to start something, set a trend for others to follow. Trolley buses can work, if this city lets them."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World