Visalia City Council dings trolley buses for lack of use

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City Council votes to sell four of five trolleys, increase hourly rental rates for Visalia Towne Trolley and Sequoia Shuttle

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – A nostalgic reminder of an era when Visalians shuttled through town on an electric railroad instead of driving personal vehicles is almost completely gone.

At its Jan. 7 meeting, the Visalia City Council voted to sell off nearly all of its fleet of trolley buses. Over the last few years, use of the trolley has dramatically declined because the program cannot provide transit services that may compete with fixed routes. The Visalia Towne Trolley fixed route was eliminated in September 2017 because it operated within a quarter mile of four fixed transit routes and the Holly Trolley ended after the 2017 holiday season for lack of use. Last year, the trolley was exclusively used as a lease-only service and only mustered about 80 hours of rentals. The lease revenue earned by all five vehicles was $5,324, which represents a total of 29 leases averaging around 3 hours each. Three-quarters of the trolley’s use was primarily for ceremonial use, such as the Stuff the Trolley fundraiser for FoodLink of Tulare County and in parades to promote the City of Visalia. While the trolley isn’t being used, it still costs the city money to maintain.

Transit manager Angelina Soper said the small amount of use makes retaining these vehicles difficult to justify.

“The trolley is pretty and cute but it doesn’t financially support itself,” said Soper, who was introduced to the council as the new transit manager earlier that night.

Councilmember Greg Collins said the city should keep them instead of selling them for 10% of their initial investment. He suggested using the trolleys to provide a direct commuter service for major employers. One possibility was Kaweah Delta Hospital, whose staff of 4,000 employees take up a significant portion of downtown parking. If the trolley could provide a pick up and drop off service to employees, it would free up more parking in the downtown area.

“Five trolleys is a good opportunity to move a lot of people in a short amount of time,” Collins said. “Once you sell them, that option is gone.”

Mayor Bob Link said the city had already tried offering a trolley route to take employees at the Tulare County Courthouse to and from the downtown area during the noon lunch hour.

“It wasn’t that successful because we are no longer doing it,” Link said.

Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen was in favor of selling off all five trolleys, but councilmembers Phil Cox and Brian Poochigian motioned and seconded to keep one of the trolleys, which ever one operates the best, for internal use. The motion passed 3-2 with Collins and Nelsen voting no.

The trolleys collectively are worth more than $285,000 but will depreciate by $40,000 every year until the city sells them. Soper said they will most likely be sold as a package because some of the trolleys are newer than others. She said it will take some time to sell them as the City will need permission from federal and state agencies which provided funding to purchase the trolleys in the first place. Until then, all of the trolleys are available at the new hourly rate.

As part of the trolley discussion, the council also voted to increase the hourly lease rate of both the trolleys and the Sequoia Shuttle for the first time in nearly a decade. The trolley will be leased internally for city services at a rate of $87.50 per hour and for non-city leases at a rate of $102.31 per hour. There will be an additional $30 per hour fee for any rentals that occur outside of normal operating hours. This is up from $65 per hour, which was approved in 2009-10. The new rate would generate an additional $1,800 per year, making the trolley a break-even business model.

Round trip tickets for the Sequoia Gateway Shuttle also went up from $15 to $20, the first increase since 2008. The shuttle picks up passengers in Visalia, Exeter, Lemon Cove and Three Rivers and takes them to the Foothills Visitor Center and the Giant Forest Monument in Sequoia National Park. Once inside the park, visitors can then hop on complimentary in-park shuttles to other locations within the park.

The increase is expected to help close a $62,000 gap in the shuttle’s budget but will probably leave a $43,000 gap going forward. According to the staff report, it is anticipated that an increase in grant funding will eliminate the remaining gap within a few years.

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