Can Walnut Creek afford a free trolley service?

April 20, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
You might think that a free trolley service would be met with open arms, but in Walnut Creek it is coming under fire. Critics say it is a courtesy the city can simply no longer afford.

For 20 years, the city of Walnut Creek has subsidized free bus service. The free downtown trolley runs every 20 minutes, from the city's busy shopping areas to BART and back, but some say it's an idea that's time has come and gone.

Former Walnut Creek City Council candidate Justin Wedel believes the current council had no business voting to continue paying $200,000 per year to keep the trolley free.

"We are in a downturn. Under the prime conditions when there is no economic downturn, and we're not facing extreme budget cuts, I think it's a great service to have. The problem is that we are in a downturn," said Wedel.

The trolley is actually part of the larger County Connection bus service. Walnut Creek pays its fare box subsidy out of downtown parking fees. While many of the riders are shoppers, a recent study showed the majority are people who use it as a way to get to or from work or home.

"We have 1,000 people a day that ride this trolley and those are 1,000 people who go to and from work as well as going shopping, or going to and from school, and if those people weren't riding this trolley, they would in fact be driving cars, and sitting in those parking spaces and making our downtown streets even more congested," said Walnut Creek Mayor Cindy Silva.

"It's keeping people from having to park. It's keeping people from polluting as they're driving around looking for a parking place. It's helping employees get to and from. It's been a very big success," said Jay Hoyer from the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce.

Wedel acknowledges the trolley has its benefits, he just doesn't want the city to pay for it.

"I think that people need to pay for what they utilize. We are experiencing both at the local and national level what happens when everyone is out for a free lunch," said Wedel.

One woman said she would not ride if she had to pay for it.

If the city decides not to subsidize the free trolley, it would be up to the County Connection board whether to charge fares, reduce the service, or discontinue it altogether.

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