There’s more riding on Gig Harbor’s new trolleys than shoppers and tourists.
Pierce Transit and its partners, including the city of Gig Harbor, started a summertime service Tuesday that will link the downtown waterfront and uptown shopping areas. It will also be a test of how the beleaguered transit agency could serve small communities in the future.
Pierce Transit will slash service hours by 28 percent in September following last year’s rejection of a sales tax increase. It already made reductions after voters defeated the same measure in 2011, cutting service by one-third, its workforce by 18 percent and its service area by 30 percent.
No longer able to afford sending large buses on fixed routes to small outlying communities, Pierce Transit is looking at less expensive ways to serve residents who rely on public transportation.
Marilyn Strickland, Tacoma mayor and Pierce Transit’s board chairwoman, told more than 70 people who attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Skanskie Brothers Park Tuesday morning that the agency has had “some tough years.” But she added the Gig Harbor trolley service reflects a willingness by board members, managers and employees to be “creative and innovative.”
“We hope that this will be a project that is very successful so we can roll it out to other communities throughout our entire service area,” she said.
Pierce Transit will spend an estimated $216,096 for the service. Its partners, including the city of Gig Harbor, uptown businesses, the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Waterfront Alliance, will chip in a total of $41,161.
The transit agency leased two 29-foot trolleys (actually diesel buses) delivered from North Carolina. It also painted two surplus 30-foot buses to look like trolleys as backups and installed trolley bus stop signs. The total startup cost was $75,780.
The agency hopes trolley fare revenues will reduce its overall costs.
So-called “tailored community solutions” will be a focus for Pierce Transit as the agency develops a strategic plan guiding its decision-making from 2014 to 2016.
Other possible solutions, according to agency spokeswoman Carol Mitchell:
• Pierce Transit could join forces with a large employer to transport workers and local residents throughout an area.
• It could provide a small bus to circulate in one or more communities more often than a traditional large bus that follows a fixed route.
In May, Pierce Transit convened what will be a 10-member business development team to drive this effort. The team is set to meet with Fife city officials on July 18 to explore service options that could start in early 2014. The city councils governing Edgewood, Fife and Milton have passed resolutions protesting the coming service cuts.
Fife City Councilman Glenn Hull, who serves on the Pierce Transit board, has proposed an alternative “circulator” route to reduce costs while continuing to provide service to the three neighboring communities.
He said he’s happy about the Gig Harbor trolley service because it “sends signals that the agency is starting to shift our strategic direction to serving communities with different needs with alternative modes of transportation.”
Gig Harbor civic and business leaders have lobbied for the trolley project for years as, in the words of Mayor Chuck Hunter, it provides the “missing link” to connect the core retail areas.
The trolley could return next year if the demonstration project is successful. On Tuesday, 120 people had boarded in the first three hours of operation.
“We need to get people out of automobiles somehow,” said former Mayor Gretchen Wilbert, a strong supporter of the trolley project. “The price of gas. The parking. We just need to have local transportation available, and that’s what the trolley does.”
But Gig Harbor will not be immune from Pierce Transit cuts. The day after the trolley service ends on Sept. 28, the agency will reduce its total service hours from 417,000 to 300,000 annually, with big cuts on weekends.
Mitchell said the trolley will run a total of 1,762 service hours, which is less than 1 percent of the current total, and “that’s not a huge impact when you’re thinking about the larger system.” But factor in providing mass transit to a busy community for three months, and the investment “makes a huge difference,” she said.
“If we’re going to find ways to increase ridership and grow the system, we have to be able to attract riders that would otherwise be in their cars,” she said.
Gig Harbor resident Dayla Clark, 34, and her 3-year-old son, who rode the trolleys Tuesday, may be exactly the audience Pierce Transit and its partners are seeking.
She lives near the waterfront and expects to ride a lot over the summer.
“It’s the cool factor,” she said of the trolleys, “but after that I could easily do some shopping.”