MONTEREY PARK — City officials were worried that a local bus service, even a free one, would not be popular with the city's 60,000 residents.
They spent a year bickering and studying transit systems, and in the end spent an extra $100,000 to get trolley look-alikes rather than regular buses.
"There was a lot of skepticism," City Manager Lloyd de Llamas said. "In looking around, a lot of local transportation systems weren't doing all that well."
Nearly three months after the five trolleys started plying the city's hilly streets, officials have been astounded to find the distinctive red-yellow-and-green trolleys jammed with 1,700 riders a day.
More than 75,000 rides have been taken on the trolleys since the service began July 7, almost twice the ridership officials had expected for the entire first year of operation.
"We've really been amazed that it has been as successful as it is," De Llamas said.
One of the keys to that success, he said, was a $15,000 advertising campaign in which color brochures were mailed to every home in the city.
There was even a contest to name the trolleys. Among the winners were "The Spirit of Monterey" and "Sunshine Express."
The novelty of the trolleys, their easy accessibility and the free rides they provide all are cited as reasons for the system's success.
De Llamas said that because Monterey Park students go to schools in four different districts, which offer only minimal bus service, the trolleys help children get to class. Senior citizens also use the trolleys to go shopping, and many people use them to get to work.
"It gives the community a sense of identity, those red-and-green trolleys rolling up the hills," De Llamas said.
Five routes, in operation from 6:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. each weekday, wind through the residential areas to City Hall. Ridership, which peaked at about 2,000 a day in late August, has leveled off at about 1,700 a day.
Since the service began, six cities have approached Monterey Park, trying to find out the secret of the trolley's success, Mayor G. Monty Manibog said.
"A lot of cities are wondering what we've done," Manibog said. "We had the Proposition A funds and we could only use them for transportation and we wanted to attract a lot of people. We've certainly done that and more."
The $1.1 million the system is expected to cost over three years is paid through the half-percent countywide sales tax levied under Proposition A.
The reasons the trolleys have worked so well could be seen earlier this week during a ride with driver John Cain on his trolley "Roadrunner" as it traveled from City Hall, through several residential areas, to East Los Angeles College.
Students, mothers with children and the elderly almost filled the trolley, which has seats about 30.
"I think it's nice and it's free and it goes to those little places," said Lopsie Chan, a student at Mark Keppel High School. "Plus, usually you don't have to stand."
Chan was returning home from a trip to the library, which is a short walk from where the trolley routes end.
"I think it's great and I don't have to pay," said Mai Phung, who uses the trolley to get from her home to East Los Angeles College.
Popular With Children
Cain said that most of his morning and afternoon passengers are schoolchildren.
"Most of them live three blocks away," he said. "They'd rather walk two blocks and take the trolley rather than walk three blocks and go home."
Cain said people seem to genuinely like the trolleys.
"It's an attention-getter," he said, pointing to the bell mounted on the front of his vehicle. "In the city, people are so tired of horns. But if you ring the bell, you get turned heads.
"These are unique. People stop and look and mouths fall open and they point. It's kind of funny to see them. I've had people offer to pay and when I tell them no, they just can't believe it."
Respite From Driving
Claire Aguilar was returning home with her two daughters, Joanna, 2, and Rosa, 6, from a downtown recreation center where they travel each day. She said she takes the trolley frequently.
"I enjoy it and I don't have to take my car," she said.
Other passengers were headed to parks or shops downtown.
"Well, obviously we're overjoyed at the success of the trolley," said Manibog. "And as it gets better known, more and more people will use it."
Although no ridership survey has been completed, Manibog said common sense suggests that the new system is easing traffic congestion.
"It appears there is a definite need for the system," said Jay Lynch, who manages the trolleys for Community Transit Services of Santa Ana. "People are using the trolleys for transportation needs rather riding around and just joy riding in them."
The reaction has not been universally positive.
Norman Levine, president of the Atlantic Square Merchant's Assn., said, "Basically, I think the money could be used in a better way."