Credit: Courtesy

A downtown trolley is running again in Santa Barbara, rolling every half hour or so from the Hotel Californian near the waterfront and up to Anapamu Street, where the county courthouse, Museum of Art, shops, a bookstore, and restaurants can be found. A single trolley makes the rounds — stopping at four spots and costing $1 to ride — but it operates only Friday through Monday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., now through September.

The public dialogue about State Street’s Promenade has occasionally included bringing back the Metropolitan Transit District’s electric trolleys to the city’s main thoroughfare. But for this summer project, the Chamber of Commerce has chartered a gas-powered one from Santa Barbara Trolley, which runs up State Street only as far as Gutierrez Street. From there it circles the promenade along Chapala, Anacapa, and Garden streets.

The trolley idea had been gestating since a meeting in June during which downtown businesses discussed the future of State Street, said Mary Lynn Harms-Romo of the Chamber. With summer holidaymakers arriving, they hoped for a shuttle service between the waterfront, Funk Zone, hotels, and downtown. “The Chamber, recognizing the significance of this challenge, came up with a solution by partnering with Wheel Fun,” she said.

One of Wheel Fun’s owners, Teddi Drew, runs S.B. Trolley. “Yeah, you should just hop aboard,” she invited. “The driver will pick you up at one of the drop offs for a dollar, and it’s every half-hour-ish,” she said, depending on traffic.

Financial assistance to run the trolley, which operates on about $1,000 a day, came from Downtown Santa Barbara, Visit Santa Barbara, and the City of Santa Barbara. If the number of riders and feedback from business partners indicated a need for the trolley, “expanded routes, more days, longer hours, or more trolleys,” might be considered, Harms-Romo said.

The familiar blue-and-white zero-emission trolleys once operated by MTD around downtown and along the waterfront were discontinued in April 2020 when the pandemic hit. Public transportation ridership plummeted on all routes, and many lines were curtailed. Harms-Romo stated that the Chamber was not able to contract with a government agency for a private charter, and they had sped through the trolley implementation in less than a month. A spokesperson for MTD said a contract, not a charter, would be possible as long as the general
public was able to ride, but the agency was more geared to long-term, permanent routes.

At the four trolley stops — the Hotel Californian, Chapala Street at Paseo Nuevo, the County Courthouse on Anacapa Street, and Anacapa and Ortega streets — A-frame signs indicate where passengers can wait. On Tuesday, a day that the red trolleys are becalmed, MTD’s Line 2 buses rumbled by the courthouse seemingly every few minutes, on their way to Milpas Street or the Transit Center.

MTD remained committed to bringing the electric trolleys back, said Hillary Blackerby, the transit company’s spokesperson. “MTD has over 30 years of experience running the popular all-electric service downtown and on the waterfront,” she said, “and we know how much the community — both residents and visitors — miss the shuttles.” In 2020, it cost two quarters to ride the MTD trolley, which received a boost of $1.2 million from the city annually.

Public transit would be part of the ongoing State Street Master Plan, which is seeking to bring the city’s downtown retail zone back from the doldrums of the Great Recession. MTD has a Short-Range Transit Plan that takes the street closure into account, Blackerby said: “We continue to engage on the State Street Master Plan process and hope to bring our subject-matter expertise to bear on a solution for the community.”


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