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Could price of ride on Angels Flight get too steep?

Operators of the little funicular railway are weighing the effects of a fare hike.

November 27, 2010|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times

Olivet and Sinai rarely bother with finances: They're too busy ferrying passengers up and down Bunker Hill.

Earlier this month however, the twin Angels Flight coaches were credited with holding a decidedly monetary debate over their 25-cent fare, via Twitter. "A lot of riders (and many of our donors) say that 25 cents is too inexpensive," Olivet tweeted. "Revenues cover less than half our expenses."

"50 cent fare, then?" Sinai suggested.

" 50 Cent? Isn't he a singer? Management says it wants to keep the Angels Flight fare at a quarter. The question is 'How?' "

That fanciful exchange between two downtown Los Angeles railway cars was one of many that Angels Flight operators have staged to keep tourists and commuters abreast of events at "the smallest railway in the world." This time, it was meant to spark input from Angelenos over how much riders should pay for a one-way 298-foot trip.

Suggestions have come rolling in: Charge 50 cents to $1 for most riders, with lower fares for seniors and the disabled; charge $2 a ride, but throw in a souvenir; charge non-Angelenos more than locals. Other say that simply posting a donation box would encourage generous riders to pay more.

It's not that the 109-year-old funicular is struggling to stay afloat, according John Welborne, president of Angels Flight Railway Foundation, the nonprofit that oversees operations.

The 25-cent fare covers more than half of the railway's expected annual operating costs of $300,000. The balance — about $120,000 — is patched together from occasional film and television shoots, licensing agreements and, most of all, donations.

"We do everything we can to raise the money to fill the gap," Welborne said. "But our donors often ask, 'Why don't you raise the fare?' "

The discussion is occurring less than a year after Angels Flight reopened for service in March. The pumpkin-orange cars had been mothballed for nine years after one man was killed and several people were injured in an accident in 2001.

Nearly every owner of Angels Flight has faced a financial challenge. Although its founder, Col. J.W. Eddy, launched the railway at a penny per ride to make money in 1901, Welborne doubts anyone has made a profit off the little funicular for at least 90 years.

The goal has always been to retain daily local passengers, the folks who commute up and down the hill two or three times each day for lunch and for work. Local riders make up about 55% of the 1,000 or so passengers who ride each day.

"The family visiting us from Dusseldorf are going to ride the line no matter what," Welborne said. "It's the people who live downtown who might think, 'I'm not going to spend that kind of money if it's going to cost me a dollar.' "

Before the end of the year, Welborne said, the foundation will try to conduct a rider survey.

On a recent Tuesday evening, as Olivet and Sinai rattled up and down the hill, passengers offered a variety of opinions. Those who said they climbed aboard every once in a while for pleasure didn't seem the mind a price change.

"It's lovely. It's a piece of L.A.," said Eileen Bryson, a first-time rider from Sherman Oaks.

But for daily riders like Brian Carr, every cent makes a difference.

"If the fare was hiked, most definitely, nostalgia would go out the window," said the 40-year-old docket clerk who daily hops aboard the railcars to enjoy a taste of history and escape the steep climb uphill.

The estimated $10 per month he now spends on two daily rides to work could double to $20 or quadruple to $40 if he kept riding.

Mario Cabello, a hairstylist who descends from the Water Court at California to grab tacos on Hill Street almost daily, agreed. Even with a bad knee, the East L.A. resident would rather brave the stairs than dish out $1.

"Fifty cents?" he said. "Maybe. But that's still cutting it close."

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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