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Claremont's trolley experiment falls by the wayside

City leaders thought a free trolley circling downtown might boost business revenue, attract more people and ease parking congestion. After seven months of low ridership, the project was scrapped.

November 17, 2009|By Corina Knoll
  • The trolley that used to circle Claremont Village now sits idle in a city yard, its neon "Free Rides" sign reduced to a blank screen. At the route's peak last year, there were 12.3 riders an hour, far below the city's expectations.
The trolley that used to circle Claremont Village now sits idle in a city… (Christine Cotter / Los Angeles…)

The trolley doesn't come around here anymore.

But when it did, it would arrive three days a week and circle downtown Claremont for 12 hours at a time. Around the apparel shops and gift boutiques, the art galleries and salons, the bakeries and cafes it would roll, stopping to pick up passengers free of charge.

The trolley was more bus than streetcar, but it came with enough old-school charm that many hoped it would be an attraction that would increase business revenue and add to the small-town atmosphere of the area known as Claremont Village.

But the whir of the trolley wheels disappeared months ago. Fliers advertising its convenience vanished. And the street signs that marked the four stops where one could catch a ride every 15 minutes were uprooted.

After just seven months of operation, the trolley's one-mile route was canceled in May due to a lack of riders. Since then, the jaunty red-and-white vehicle with the wooden seats has sat in a city yard, collecting dust and snide remarks from those who saw it as an example of the folly of city leaders.

Its fate is uncertain. Several outside parties have inquired about taking over Claremont's three-year lease, but no deals have been reached. So, for now, it continues to cost the city one-fifth of the $22,000 it had been paying each month to lease and operate the streetcar.

When city leaders first introduced the idea, they modeled their vision after Rancho Cucamonga's Victoria Gardens, a 1.3-million-square-foot open-air shopping center that features a trolley-like bus. Some residents believe Claremont should never have attempted to replicate that city's experience. The trolley, they say, was a silly novelty doomed from the start.

"I couldn't understand how it would help the businesses at all. The Village is too little and it had a very limited course," said Edith Richardson, 70. "If they wanted to improve business it would be better for people to walk around rather than just stop at certain points with the trolley."

A retired nurse, Richardson has lived in the community -- home to the Claremont Colleges and about 37,000 residents -- for 25 years. She and her husband moved to the foliage-lined residential town because strangers there were neighborly and the downtown was quaint and pedestrian-friendly. The latter is a detail Richardson says foretold the trolley's downfall. Folks like to travel on foot in Claremont.

Gavin Alarcon, manager of a cafe in the Village, agreed. "It's not for this city," he said of the 25-foot trolley. "It's like putting a cruise ship in the middle of the desert."

Alarcon, 31, said he didn't notice when the shuttle service started or when it became defunct because most of his customers are local students who were never enticed by the free transportation.

"College kids like to mill about," he said. "The time it takes for them to wait for a ride, they can just walk."

Some business owners, however, think the city gave up on the trolley prematurely.

"I'm almost positive it would have had more use in the summer," said Sonja Stump, 60, who owns a photo studio in the Village.

Stump also believes the trolley would have fared better if the route had been expanded to include more of the city. "Enough of the options weren't explored," she said. "It's kind of a sad thing that it wasn't given more of a shot."

And Susan Hummer, 44, co-owner of a pet-sitting and dog-training parlor, said the trolley helped unite the recently expanded Village. While the east side of the Village is filled with decades-old storefronts, the west features a new mixed-use development with a movie theater and hotel.

"Anything to help the community from one side to the other is nice," Hummer said. "And every time I saw the trolley, there were people in it."

But even at its peak ridership -- 12.3 people per hour in November 2008 -- the trolley failed to attract the kind of numbers the city believed would make it viable. Interest waned over the months, and while the trolley was meant to encourage use of the downtown parking lot, drivers continued to jockey for spaces on the Village streets.

After an evaluation in April, the City Council voted 3 to 2 to halt the trolley venture in Claremont that was projected to cost $886,000 over three years.

"It didn't bring in people from the south or north parts of the town and was very restricted as to what it could be used for, so it was challenged to begin with," said Claremont Mayor Corey Calaycay, an early opponent of the trolley.

Currently, Claremont is negotiating the price of a lease takeover with a company and has had inquiries from the city of Temecula, Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, a trolley brokerage in Colorado and a vehicle distributor in Nevada, said Assistant City Manager Tony Ramos.

Councilwoman Linda Elderkin said she recognizes that the trolley wasn't efficiently used, but wishes the city had fought to keep it running. She said some college students and residents of retirement communities have shown interest in bringing the trolley back.

"Our Village will not suffer without the trolley," she said. "It just added a little something."

Resident Charles Goldsmid, 68, said he would have taken the trolley if it had stuck around for a bit longer.

"Any time you institute mass transit, it takes time before it gets into people's beliefs that it's really going to be there for their use," he said.

Until it finds a new route, the trolley idles away the hours under a salmon-colored carport in the back of a city yard where its neighbors include trash bins and generators.

While its red hubcaps still shine, the sign that once lit up its face with the neon words "Free Trolley" is dark.

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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