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

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.

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Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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