As Dana Point Harbor prepares for its 16th annual Festival of the Whales starting this week, merchants and county officials look to a newly instituted shuttle bus program to alleviate critical parking problems.
The shuttle picks up harbor-bound folks at several satellite parking lots, including the Dana Point Royce Resort Hotel.
The bus operates from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends, holidays and special occasions, such as the whale festival, said Gene Jerry, president of the advisory board of the Dana Point Harbor Assn. He said the rest of the year it operates from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends.
The bus runs every half hour, picking people up from four lots located away from the harbor's center and busing them to more than a dozen different points of interest.
Passengers are charged $1, which allows them to ride all day. Jerry said the harbor association also sells ads on the bus to help with operating costs.
He said the idea for the bus came from the advisory board of the harbor association.
The 1-year pilot program was started last July, when 33 harbor merchants agreed to contribute $15,000 in start-up money for the program, he said. The county kicked in another $15,000, he said.
Although he has not had any specific complaints from merchants about how their businesses are affected by the parking problem, Jerry said, "they all have the same feeling that we have a parking problem that needs to be resolved."
It is estimated that the harbor now has about 1,737 public parking spaces.
"It's kind of like a Band-Aid we're trying," Jerry said of the pilot program. "It's not as effective as we'd like. But we've got to be doing something."
Dee Bower, a spokeswoman for the harbor association, said the number of riders varies. She said the bus has carried as few as six to 10 people a day during off periods to as many as 150 during peak periods in the summer months.
Bower and Jerry agreed that part of the problem is informing people about the bus. "The only publicity we have is the flyers we put up and word-of-mouth," Bower said.
Still, some merchants feel more needs to be done.
"The bus is empty most of the time," said John Hicks, owner of the Harbor Grill and one of the merchants participating in the shuttle program. "It's a good effort, but it just doesn't appear to be highly successful."
He said a lot of people will avoid the harbor altogether because of the parking situation.
Shirley Feldman, owner of the Skate Arcade, said she has lost some customers because of the limited parking. "They have a hard time finding parking spaces on the weekends. I see them circling and circling and then leaving," she said.
Feldman said she arrives early to guarantee herself of a parking space.
"As a merchant, it does give you a feeling of panic. You can't even park to open up your own place," she said. "It's an inconvenience . . . just another challenge in life."
Jay Barasch, 45, of Laguna Beach said he travels to the harbor about twice a month but does not use the shuttle. "It's terrible," Barasch said of the parking situation. "A lot of the locals will come down here in the morning. They realize what the problem is. . . . They don't come out here at mid-day."
Jack Fox, 55, of Mission Viejo, said he and his wife have trouble parking when they come to the harbor. "The parking is terrible . . . especially on Sundays," Fox said. "It's almost impossible to get a parking space."
Jerry said boaters, who have their own private parking, can add to congestion. "If they don't make parking arrangements for their guests, they will park in areas reserved for the general public. That's one of the complaints the merchants have."
Officials at the Orange County Sheriff's Department office who patrol the harbor area said the shuttle bus is helping and will be an asset during the Festival of the Whales. Festival days will be Feb. 20, 21, 27 and 28, and March 5 and 6.
Jerry said the festival will be a "good gauge" of how well the bus program is working.
He said that a long-term goal of the harbor association is to construct a multilevel parking garage but that it would not be for another three or four years.
If and when a parking structure is built, he said, there will still be a need for a bus. "Even if we triple the amount of parking spaces in the harbor, we're still going to have to be able to move people," he said.
The 1-year pilot program ends in June, when it will be evaluated by the Orange County Harbors, Beaches and Parks Department, which will then decide on whether to continue the service.