Fact Check: Tracking the Trams

Fact Check: Tracking the Trams

Photo courtesy of the city

An Indiana-based company recently finished building two new sets of trams and delivered them to the city.

Image: TRUEStatement: “There’s new trams (for Balboa Park) that have been purchased that are soon going to be in operation,” Mayor Bob Filner said at a June 18 gathering to unveil plans for the Balboa Park Centennial celebration.

Determination: True

Analysis: Philanthropist Irwin Jacobs’ plan to clear the Plaza de Panama of cars is history – and Mayor Bob Filner has come up with a temporary solution of his own – but the mayor recently claimed one element of Jacob’s blueprint will be incorporated regardless.

Last month, Filner told residents and reporters that new trams will ease parking woes ahead of the year-long celebration in Balboa Park planned for 2015. Filner, who spoke at a June 18 event at The Old Globe, said the city had long planned to use a tram system to get residents from outer parking lots to the center of the park.

The improved system was a key component of Jacobs’ $45 million plan to clear the park’s central mesa, and city leaders have been mum on whether the city still plans to use them (Disclosure: Jacobs is a major supporter of Voice of San Diego).

Jacobs had aimed to renovate the plaza, build a bypass bridge and add a parking garage behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. His vision crumbled in February after a judge ruled that the city broke its own rules by approving the plan.

At Filner’s direction, the city has since removed cars from the plaza and allowed pedestrians to take over, achieving a major goal of Jacobs’ plan at a fraction of the cost.

Here’s what that looked like as of a few weeks ago:

Photo courtesy of the city

Photo courtesy of the city

Overhead view of the Plaza de Panama

Filner has repeatedly emphasized the temporary nature of this new configuration but the City Council took steps to proceed with a more permanent element of Jacobs’ vision last year.

The City Council approved a lease financing agreement in October to allow the city to buy three motorized trams and nine trailers for $1 million.

A staff report presented ahead of the Council vote estimated the trams would carry about 100 passengers each, and would last 10 to 20 years. The report also outlined previously discussed plans to have the Plaza de Panama Committee, the organization behind Jacobs’ plan, cover operating costs for the trams before a 797-car parking garage was built. The city would begin picking up the tab after the underground garage opened and provided revenue to cover costs.

The city’s independent budget analyst estimated it would cost $543,000 to operate the additional trams. (The city already contracts with Old Town Trolley Tours of San Diego to operate four vehicles at an annual cost of $300,000 though that contract.)

City officials later ordered the trams but there was confusion about how to proceed after the judge’s ruling sullied Jacobs’ plans, thus also quashing the parking garage that would’ve covered tram-related costs.

At a March City Council meeting, Councilman David Alvarez questioned the status of the trams. At the time, Filner acknowledged he wasn’t sure whether they had been purchased and called on Park and Recreation Director Stacey LoMedico to give Council members a more detailed update.

“Those trams are still on order because we don’t have a definitive plan on how to move forward,” LoMedico said. “We obviously have a judgment by the judge but with that being said, they are still on order because we don’t have any definitive policy calls in terms of how we are going to proceed.”

Alvarez asked whether it was possible to cancel the order. LoMedico said the city was looking into that.

In the weeks to follow, Council President Todd Gloria sent two memos to the mayor requesting more information and dialogue about traffic management plans at the park. Filner’s office never responded and has since cleared the plaza of cars.

It turns out city officials went ahead with plans to bring the new vehicles to Balboa Park.

An Indiana-based company recently finished building two new sets of trams and delivered them to the city.

The city plans to begin using the trams to ferry park visitors sometime next month, though it will need to secure a contract with an operator first, city spokesman Bill Harris said.

He said the city expects to cover operating and maintenance costs with cash from hotel tax collections that are funneled into the city’s Park and Recreation budget.

Meanwhile, the city set up a tram stop near the El Cid statue so visitors can be dropped off in front of the Plaza de Panama.

But tram routes and hours haven’t been solidified yet. The city expects to set specific schedules after a few weeks of testing and observation.

One objective is already clear, though. The city wants to encourage more San Diegans to park at the Inspiration Point parking lot and then take a quick tram ride to the park’s central mesa. Officials hope the new trams, which are more accessible for disabled park visitors and carry far more passengers, will entice them.

“The goal is to expand tram operations at Inspiration Point, making that large parking reservoir a much more viable resource for park visitors,” Harris said.

So Filner’s statement that new trams would soon be coming to Balboa Park is true.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

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29 comments
Kevin Swanson
Kevin Swanson

Why not have the trams run between the Zoo parking lot and the Old Globe Theater - especially when they are having performances? The same could be done for any large events at the other institutions within the Park? Running along Old Globe Way provides access to the back sides of institutions on the north side of El Prado. Other option would be to have "right sized" internal transportation system using automated electric vehicles, bridge behind Old Globe Admin building that connects with driveway between California Tower and Museum of Man Admin Bldg., and internal transit center connecting east/west/north/south transportation.

Kevin Swanson
Kevin Swanson subscriber

Why not have the trams run between the Zoo parking lot and the Old Globe Theater - especially when they are having performances? The same could be done for any large events at the other institutions within the Park? Running along Old Globe Way provides access to the back sides of institutions on the north side of El Prado. Other option would be to have "right sized" internal transportation system using automated electric vehicles, bridge behind Old Globe Admin building that connects with driveway between California Tower and Museum of Man Admin Bldg., and internal transit center connecting east/west/north/south transportation.

Lari Tiller Power
Lari Tiller Power

Are dogs going to bee allowed on the trams and if not, where's the fun of the park? Also, has anybody analyzed whether there are as many visitors with the new layout as there were before the change? Is the population of disabled visitors up or down with the elimination of the easier drop off and decrease in disabled parking slots near the north end museums?

Erik Hanson
Erik Hanson

My understanding is that Sanders ordered the trams in hubristic prediction of winning the SOHO lawsuit, but they forgot to order and site the fueling equipment for the natural gas or whatever they run on. And that was the reason for the delay, they could have started it the day the parking was removed, otherwise.

Erik Hanson
Erik Hanson subscriber

My understanding is that Sanders ordered the trams in hubristic prediction of winning the SOHO lawsuit, but they forgot to order and site the fueling equipment for the natural gas or whatever they run on. And that was the reason for the delay, they could have started it the day the parking was removed, otherwise.

Kevin Swanson
Kevin Swanson

Last week I visited Masdar City and used their 4 person automated electric Personal Rapid Transit vehicles. These PRT shuttles showcase forward thinking and partnership with industry. The 100 person trams with high operational costs showcase San Diego's backward thinking and history of bad decisions.

Kevin Swanson
Kevin Swanson subscriber

Last week I visited Masdar City and used their 4 person automated electric Personal Rapid Transit vehicles. These PRT shuttles showcase forward thinking and partnership with industry. The 100 person trams with high operational costs showcase San Diego's backward thinking and history of bad decisions.

amy roth
amy roth

What about filling up the empty space in the central plaza that now looks so bleak? Weren't we going to have umbrella tables and chairs installed there?

amy roth
amy roth subscribermember

What about filling up the empty space in the central plaza that now looks so bleak? Weren't we going to have umbrella tables and chairs installed there?

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw

This is great news. The current tram service is "marginal", at best. Why the city can't charge a small fare to recoup at least a portion of the costs is a mystery to me. It's not as though city coffers couldn't use the cash.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

This is great news. The current tram service is "marginal", at best. Why the city can't charge a small fare to recoup at least a portion of the costs is a mystery to me. It's not as though city coffers couldn't use the cash.

David Cohen
David Cohen

Does this mean that twice-hourly tram service to the "West Side," with stops at (a) Sixth and Laurel and (b) near the Marston House will be ended?

David Cohen
David Cohen subscriber

Does this mean that twice-hourly tram service to the "West Side," with stops at (a) Sixth and Laurel and (b) near the Marston House will be ended?

amy roth
amy roth

that's great, but let's get with the furniture! Then kids can be playing and their parents can be sitting and having a drink and reading their smartphones. It could be Starbucks Central of San Diego!!

Eric Spoerner
Eric Spoerner

I don't disagree with you that the furniture will make it umpteen times better, but to be fair I've seen people congregating, kids playing/running, etc. here every time that I've visited since the fix was made.

amy roth
amy roth

How are people supposed to behave? There's nothing to do there but walk away, or through it to get to the other side. Look what New York has done in Times Square and Herald Square -- all those chairs and tables brought those previously traffic-filled logjams to vivid pedestrian life!

Eric Spoerner
Eric Spoerner

As I recall, the city will be observing how visitors actually behave in the space before they place furniture, etc.

amy roth
amy roth subscribermember

that's great, but let's get with the furniture! Then kids can be playing and their parents can be sitting and having a drink and reading their smartphones. It could be Starbucks Central of San Diego!!

Eric Spoerner
Eric Spoerner subscriber

I don't disagree with you that the furniture will make it umpteen times better, but to be fair I've seen people congregating, kids playing/running, etc. here every time that I've visited since the fix was made.

amy roth
amy roth subscribermember

How are people supposed to behave? There's nothing to do there but walk away, or through it to get to the other side. Look what New York has done in Times Square and Herald Square -- all those chairs and tables brought those previously traffic-filled logjams to vivid pedestrian life!

Eric Spoerner
Eric Spoerner subscriber

As I recall, the city will be observing how visitors actually behave in the space before they place furniture, etc.

Eric Spoerner
Eric Spoerner

Mostly because this city is convinced that any paid parking in Balboa Park is somehow tantamount to trampling on our liberties as citizens.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

The city could also charge a small amount to park in the most desirable parking spaces in Balboa Park, the ones that are always full.

Eric Spoerner
Eric Spoerner subscriber

Mostly because this city is convinced that any paid parking in Balboa Park is somehow tantamount to trampling on our liberties as citizens.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

The city could also charge a small amount to park in the most desirable parking spaces in Balboa Park, the ones that are always full.

David Cohen
David Cohen

Bruce--will there be tram access when CalTrans closes the bridge for a few months, separate from the "new, bigger tram" issue?

Bruce Coons
Bruce Coons

I hope not. Since SOHO for the stop at Upas and 6th.

David Cohen
David Cohen subscriber

Bruce--will there be tram access when CalTrans closes the bridge for a few months, separate from the "new, bigger tram" issue?

Bruce Coons
Bruce Coons subscriber

I hope not. Since SOHO for the stop at Upas and 6th.