Gig Harbor trolley deemed a success, service will likely return

Pierce Transit expected to decide Monday whether it will extend program; rate will likely increase

Staff writerOctober 12, 2013 

Pierce Transit wants to continue running old-fashioned-looking trolley cars in Gig Harbor in future summers after a trial run that ended in late September proved popular and met the agency’s ridership and revenue goals.

DEAN J. KOEPFLER — Staff photographer

Pierce Transit wants to continue running old-fashioned-looking trolley cars in Gig Harbor in future summers after a trial run that ended in late September proved popular and met the agency’s ridership and revenue goals.

“We saw the community really loved this service,” said administrator Tina Lee. “People who had never ridden the bus wanted to ride the trolley.”

Pierce Transit’s board is expected to decide Monday whether to keep the trolleys rolling next summer. Riders would likely have to pay a substantially higher fare.

The trolleys surpassed expectations by carrying about 350 passengers per day on average, according to Pierce Transit figures. The project cost a total of around $360,000, mostly paid by the transit agency with help from the city of Gig Harbor and other partners.

With the price of a ride set at 25 cents, the agency collected $4,402 in fares.

Also Monday, the transit board is scheduled to choose whether to approve designing tailored service for Fife, Edgewood and Milton, using two loop routes with shuttles. The three cities have criticized the agency for past cuts in their service area.

The so-called “circulator” service is proposed to start in mid-February.

Both the East Pierce and Gig Harbor projects are tests of how the transit system can adapt to serve small communities when it can’t afford sending more large buses on fixed routes.

The Gig Harbor trolley service linked the downtown waterfront and uptown shopping areas in a six-mile loop.

Gig Harbor Mayor Chuck Hunter said the community liked the service and it stimulated business.

The demonstration project drew ridership of 28,514 from July 9 to Sept. 28. Trolley ridership was more than double the number of riders on Route 100 through Gig Harbor during the same time last year, the agency said.

“Our hope is it continues to be as successful as it was and becomes a seasonal service we implement every year,” said Lee, administrator for service innovation.

Pierce Transit paid an estimated $319,168 for the 82-day trolley demonstration project. That includes $51,640 for leasing the two 29-foot trolleys (actually diesel buses).

Community partners are contributing $41,161 for the project, with $8,411 still due. Those partners include the city of Gig Harbor, which contributed $11,460, as well as uptown businesses, the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Waterfront Alliance.

Ridership averaged 16 passengers per service hour, slightly more than the goal of 15 passengers. Each trolley holds 26 passengers.

Contributions from community partners and fares paid for 16 percent of the costs of operating the trolleys, meeting the agency’s systemwide goal.

Sales tax pays for the vast majority of Pierce Transit’s operating expenses.

Ridership dropped in September when concerts and other summertime activities ended, Lee said.

Pierce Transit proposes starting trolley service earlier next year on Memorial Day weekend and ending sooner on Labor Day. It intends to buy two “gently-used” trolleys at a cost of $234,644, instead of leasing them, said Van Sawin, business development officer.

Operating expenses for next summer are budgeted at $315,450.

Because the trolley service would no longer be a demonstration project, the agency proposes charging its standard fares of $2 for adults. Youths age 6 to 18 would pay 75 cents. Children 5 and under would still ride free.

Lee said the agency would expect to lose some ridership with a $2 fare.

She said Pierce Transit would like to seek more contributions from community partners, potentially lowering the adult fare to $1.

Agency spokeswoman Carol Mitchell said Pierce Transit would have to analyze and justify having a lower adult fare for the trolley than it collects for the rest of the system.

Keeping fares below $2 will be crucial to sustaining ridership and service, said Hunter, the Gig Harbor mayor.

“That’s going to be the whole thing, if the community is going to buy that cost down,” he said.

Hunter and three other leaders from the community partners urged Pierce Transit in a letter early this month to continue the service.

“The trolley brought a flavor and flair to the Harbor that residents and business owners have been craving for many years and they embraced it with open arms,” they wrote.

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647

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