By Hutton Marshall | SDUN Editor
On Dec. 9, Interim Mayor Todd Gloria welcomed a fleet of three brand-new trams that have since begun shuttling passengers across Balboa Park free of charge. The trams come after former mayor Bob Filner’s removal of parking in the Plaza de Panama earlier this year, among several moves geared toward creating a more pedestrian-friendly Balboa Park.
“One thing everyone can agree on is that Balboa Park is the crown jewel of our city, and making sure every San Diegan and every visitor can easily access the center of the park must be a priority,” Gloria said at the unveiling of the tram service. “Our new trams will make that possible.”
The trams — large, 72-person vehicles coated with a bright-green paint job — will operate daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., picking up at two stops every 10 to 12 minutes. They will loop from the Inspiration Point parking lots to the Plaza de Panama next to the Mingei International Museum, although another stop at the parking lots near the Air & Space Museum may be added.
Following a similar but unsuccessful effort led by Qualcomm CEO Irwin Jacobs and the City Council, Filner outlined a plan early this summer to pedestrianize Balboa Park, which included cutting the parking out of Plaza de Panama, closing the Cabrillo Bridge to automobiles on weekends and holidays, along with a few other measures.
His intentions to partially close the Cabrillo Bridge to traffic were met with some community opposition, but Filner said the plan was subject to change. Filner also cited the Caltrans project that will close the Cabrillo Bridge to traffic for several months starting Jan. 5 for seismic retrofitting. It was at that time Filmer had the city purchase the trams hoping to have them in action by August.
After Filner’s resignation, Gloria waved off the plan to close Cabrillo Bridge to cars — at least until the Caltrans project begins in January — saying that would be a decision left to the next mayor. He also had to push back putting the trams into action due to lack of planning for an on-site fuel source the trams could use throughout the day, according to a spokesperson for Gloria.
Now that the trams are in operation, the city will revamp the Alcazar Garden parking lots to offset the parking spaces removed from the Plaza de Panama, according to Parks and Recreation Public Information Officer Bill Harris. Improvements include restriping, improving the tree-root riddled asphalt and increasing accessibility for disabled park visitors.
Harris said the pedestrianizing of Balboa Park is just another phase in its long, continuously evolving history, adapting to the changing needs to San Diegans and visitors.
“The park is a dynamic place,” Harris said. “There have been subtle changes over its entire history … I grew up here and I remember driving from Park Boulevard all the way to The Old Globe — straight down in between the museums — it was drivable.”
Ace Parking, the winner of a competitive bid between three other companies, will operate the trams. They were built by Nevada’s Specialty Vehicles Incorporated (SVI), which will receive an annual lease payment of $150,000 from the city until 2020, after which San Diego will assume ownership of the units. Operation of the trams is budgeted to cost $350,000 each year, which is what the city pays for the current park trolley system being phased out.