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Newport Beach City Council ups fines as residents are concerned about boardwalk safety

A group of scooter riders approaches the Balboa Peninsula boardwalk in 2016.
Segway riders approach the Balboa Peninsula boardwalk in 2016. Newport Beach residents have raised concerns about electric vehicles and speeding.
(Susan Hoffman)

Safety on Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula boardwalk isn’t a new issue.

Not by a mile, or by the nearly 3 miles that the boardwalk runs along the Balboa Peninsula between 36th Street to E Street. The issue of safety on the boardwalk is a long-standing issue, with residents raising concerns about speeding, unsafe conduct and, now, the proliferation of electric bicycles and other motorized vehicles.

The issue returned before the Newport Beach City Council during a Feb. 11 study session earlier this year, with many of the concerns focused on speeding.

Up for discussion Tuesday night was adoption of an ordinance to add additional language to define electric bicycles, electrically motorized boards and motorized transportation devices at-large and an increase of the maximum fines for violations from $50 to $200.

Orange County allowed all of its schools to reopen Tuesday for the first time since March. Teachers say schools still aren’t ready to welcome students and staff back on campus safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

City staff also sought direction from the City Council on whether or not it should bring back restrictions or a ban on motorized transportation devices on the boardwalk, which includes e-bikes.

The fastest class of e-bikes is already prohibited from the narrow path, along with surreys, motorized scooters and skateboards, but like cycle surreys, electric bikes are available for renting at Newport’s many tourist-serving seaside bike shops.

City staff reviewed current signage and regulatory measures already implemented such as the replacement of old signs and radar speed feedback signs, which inform passers-by of how fast they’re going.

Still pending projects are revision of text-based signs to symbol-styled signs and the addition of speed-calming devices such as rumble strips, which are currently undergoing a pilot program at three locations along the Castaways Park trail until the end of the year.

The speed limit on the boardwalk is 8 mph.

Councilwoman Diane Dixon, whose district includes the Balboa Peninsula, said the issue pre-dated her arrival on council. Dixon was elected to the City Council in 2014 and said that boardwalk safety has been the “number one issue” in all her town hall meetings, an issue, she said, has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The reason we’re sitting here tonight and we have a room full of people and letters having been written is that people are violating these fundamental laws of our city with impunity, cavalierly and with impunity,” Dixon said, adding that she wanted the City Council to find a solution by the end of the night.

NMUSD employees rallied in a motorcade Sunday to protest the district’s reopening schools next week, saying supplies and personnel are not in place and union talks are still ongoing.

Conversation on Tuesday focused chiefly on speeding and a lack of enforcement as the central crux of the issue, with opponents of a potential e-bike ban saying that electric bicycles shouldn’t be singled out when manual bikes could reach similar speeds. Those speeding should be held accountable, but not good operators.

Some residents recommended the possibility of expanding the boardwalk to create a separate lane for bicyclists, while others stressed clarifying the signs and for greater enforcement.

Councilman Kevin Muldoon said that while he understands safety on the boardwalk is a serious problem, he felt that police resources were better used elsewhere. Muldoon said he felt the best way to handle the issue was by imposing physical barriers or deterrents. Dixon agreed that enforcement could not be the only solution to the speeding issue, but added that she felt the issue was largely seasonal.

The City Council voted to adopt the ordinance to amend the language in the current ordinance to state that no users of the boardwalk can exceed the 8-mph speed limit, as proposed by Mayor Will O’Neill, and to increase the maximum fines. Muldoon dissented.

Dixon, along with Mayor Pro Tem Brad Avery and council members Joy Brenner and Jeff Herdman, directed staff to bring back a potential ordinance mandating pedestrians only on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day weekends.

Staff was also directed to look at other cities and countries on how issues of speeding are dealt with and for staff to return with information on the pilot program at Castaways Park trail. The City Council also voted to lift a hold on a capital improvement project meant for the boardwalk that had been tabled to the 2021-22 fiscal year out of concern for budget shortfalls as a result of the pandemic.

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