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Council Votes to Extend Downtowner Pilot

Jul 19, 2017 09:05AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

A city-wrapped vehicle, one of six in the new Downtowner EV fleet

The Manhattan Beach City Council on Tuesday night voted to extend the pilot program for the Downtowner electric vehicle program for one year, while directing staff to investigate further options for finding new funding sources and expanding the program.

Responding to a report that the service had provided 30,000 rides in six months, Mayor Pro Tem Amy Howorth said, “Would we have even dared to dream that we would get 5,000 rides a month?” She added, “It is overwhelmingly a success. People who take it, like it.“

The Downtowner pilot program has six 6-seater electric vehicles that serve the western-most end of Manhattan Beach with free rides on demand that riders can order through an app. The program was set to expire at the end of July, but many businesses and residents have been advocating for extending the pilot program - and in particular not dropping it during the busy summer months.

The existing program is essentially run at no cost to the city, with the Downtowner vehicles parked at a previously unused space in the Metlox garage, and charged at charging stations that are paid for by the Downtowner.

In response to the city's inquiry about what it would take to expand the program across the city, however, the Downtowner team estimated that it would cost about $840,000, because expanding to East Manhattan Beach would require different vehicles and would not be feasible with existing advertising revenue. That estimate caused a recent outcry on social media, where many residents complained that the city should not be using taxpayer money to subsidize what would essentially be an Uber- or Lyft-type service.

Tuesday's discussion focused on the current state of the Downtowner program, where the funding might come from to expand the program, and whether advertising from alcohol products should be considered.

"The Downtowner has obviously been wildly successful," said Kelly Stroman, executive director of the Downtown Manhattan Beach Business and Professionals Association, which brought the initial idea of the Downtowner to the city. "It’s a community program; it’s not just downtown Manhattan Beach. A lot of people ride it to the beach, to the library, to baseball games. It’s moving people all over the service area; it’s connecting people to people."

Stroman added that she had receive many letters of thanks for the service, including from a family that had used the service to transport people to a wake that was being held in the north end of town, and from the mother of an autistic son who uses it to take regular trips to the library while she is at work.

"We’ve always had issues with people getting into our city, and the Downtowner finally helped us address that issue," said Maureen McBride, owner of Tabula Rasa and Yorktown. "It's bringing people together, it’s very convenient, it’s reduced emissions, it's easy and safe and kind of fun to do."

Yet Councilmember Nancy Hersman, an East Manhattan Beach resident, echoed concerns of many when she said that the city needed to find a way to serve all residents. "We have to either serve all of our residents or not. It’s not just downtown residents' problem to find parking. It’s everyone else’s problem too... I would like to see that we look at some options where we can include all residents."

Andy Sywak, Manhattan Beach's economic vitality manager, reported that other communities fund similar programs through either parking meter revenue or through facilitated ad buys through the local Conference and Visitors Bureau.

"I’m not going to vote to put taxpayer money for this.," said Councilmember Steve Napolitano, who added that he would like to see the city pursue options with Metro funding. "Those Metro dollars – or some sales tax that we approve – should be going to services like this. They should be coming from there, not from the city."

The Manhattan Beach City Council approved the electric shuttle pilot program in June 2016 , in response to ongoing concerns about parking in busy beach-side parking districts. Many downtown businesses, along with the the Downtown Manhattan Beach Business and Professional's Association, had advocated for this kind of service to alleviate the parking crunch during peak shopping and dining times.

The Downtowner's current service area runs from El Porto to 1st street, and from the Manhattan Beach Pier to Pacific Ave.

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