OCEAN PARK Facing a flurry of opposition from business owners and residents, the Big Blue Bus has pulled a proposal to cancel the Tide Ride shuttle and plans to instead examine ways to revamp the lowest performing line in its system, gearing it more toward tourism.
The change in plans comes as welcomed news to the local neighborhood and merchants associations, which for months have been lobbying officials with the public transportation agency to keep the shuttle service, which was on the chopping block because of a loss of roughly $3.5 million in state transit assistance funds.
The BBB now plans to keep service intact until August when the shuttle will only run on weekends for eight hours each day. Around that time, BBB will establish a steering committee that will help develop a new shuttle service, which could entail a new route, stops and brand, according to Dan Dawson, the customer relations manager with the Big Blue Bus.
“The one thing everyone agrees on is the Tide — the way it is configured today — is just not serving anyone’s needs, not the community or the hotels or the visitors,” Dawson said.
The Tide was originally developed in 1993 as a way to serve the growing tourism sector and offset traffic impacts. In 1995, five local hotels — Casa del Mar, Shutters on the Beach, Sheraton Delfina, Loews Santa Monica and the Doubletree — agreed to pay approximately $231,000 a year toward the operation of the Tide Ride as part of a development agreement with City Hall.
That amount currently pays about 27 percent of the yearly operational costs for the shuttle with the Big Blue Bus picking up the remainder. The total operating budget for the Tide is about $849,000 annually.
The shuttle, which can hold about 26 passengers at one time, only serves about half of capacity every hour, making it the lowest performing service in the system.
The agency, based on rough figures, estimates that about 5 percent of boardings are for the hotels.
Nicky Gore-Jones, director of sales and marketing for the Sheraton Delfina, said the hotel used to hand out free bus passes, which were infrequently requested by the guests.
The hotel operates its own complimentary shuttle, though it always gives the tourists options of taking the alternatives, including the Tide.
Mary Marlow, the president of the Ocean Park Association, said she is pleased BBB is looking at ways to save the shuttle, noting that it probably would have been more expensive to introduce a completely new line as opposed to pushing something that currently exists.
“You hate to see it go away altogether,” she said.
Marlow added that part of the problem with the shuttle’s ridership is the operating hours, which is from noon to 8 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and noon to 10:02 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
“If you’re going to dinner and a movie, you can’t come home on the shuttle,” she said.
Gary Gordon, the executive director of the Main Street Merchants Association, suggested the agency begin working on improving the line right away and allow the scaled-back version of the shuttle to run on longer hours than proposed.
“There’s a consensus that the hours were just not long enough,” he said.
Business owners on Main Street said they were in favor of keeping the shuttle service, adding that it still brings in customers to the commercial district, which is especially needed during a recession.
Radka Opalka, a board member of the merchants association and owner of Clever, said that even if there are only about a dozen riders on the line every hour, that can translate to about 96 potential customers a day.
“If you made it visually more fun and exciting, it would improve ridership,” Opalka said. “It wouldn’t be so hard to wrap it in a surfboard theme, stick some surf boards on top.”
Heidi Jackson, who works at Joe’s Diner and takes the Tide to work every day, said the shuttle is convenient given that parking costs are high.
“They should advertise more and their hours should be better,” she said. “They’re unpredictable and hard to find.”
Dawson said the shuttle will be geared more toward tourism and the hotels and have a secondary neighborhood benefit. He said that BBB plans to develop the Mini Blue system even more to better accommodate the neighbors.
The agency has also conducted a survey of stakeholders, including residents and businesses. The results of the survey are expected to be available soon.
“The Big Blue Bus realizes that there are two distinct service needs — one is a community need, which is the neighborhood, and one is a business and tourism need,” he said. “We’ve been trying to make the Tide Ride serve all of those needs and it can’t.”
Ashley Archibald contributed to this report