Long Beach Transit's Aqualink speeds by the Queen Mary. File photo.

One of Long Beach’s most unique features is back in full service for the first time in over two years.

Long Beach’s AquaLink service, which ferries passengers between Alamitos Bay and Rainbow Harbor, has returned for the first time in full capacity since COVID-19 sent most of the world into a shutdown. This is the first time since the service closed in March 2020 that AquaLink is able to serve customers at a pre-pandemic capacity.

While AquaLink kickstarted service again in May 2021, it reduced capacity from the boat’s maximum of 70 passengers down to 45 until this past Memorial Day. Now, the service is once again welcoming 70 passengers as summer service returns, though masking requirements are still in place.

The easing of restrictions is a welcome change for the Long Beach Transit service, which the pandemic forced to close as ridership was growing.

“2019 was one of the best seasons we’ve had in recent history,” Long Beach Transit spokesperson Arantxa Chavarria said.

That’s largely thanks to a decision that year to expand the service, which had historically only been available from Memorial Day through Labor Day. In March 2019, Long Beach Transit announced that it would continue to be available seven days a week during that peak season, but it would also run on weekends for the rest of the year.

Looking ahead, Long Beach Transit hopes 2022 will mark the start of higher ridership numbers. As for what those numbers could look like, Chavarria said the roller coaster of the past three years makes it hard to predict.

In 2019, ridership began in March and lasted through the rest of that year, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant there was less than three months of ridership in 2020. And in 2021, a May start and limited capacity kept numbers artificially low, while the data from the first half of this year also reflects the capacity restrictions.

“We can’t predict the trend on this because it has been so different, and we don’t have even a full year’s data,” Chavarria said.

Still, the agency is hopeful riders will return in full force this summer—and that their momentum will continue into a solid year of ridership in 2023.

After all, Long Beach Transit knows it has a unique service with the AquaLink. Chavarria noted that AquaLink riders get two benefits from the service: a ride on the water and a way to travel across Downtown without worrying about traffic or parking.

And soon, the agency will also provide transportation to and from the AquaLink itself.

Long Beach Transit is in the process of implementing electric battery buses, which are shorter than traditional buses. While the older buses were too large to access Alamitos Bay, where one of AquaLink’s stops resides, the newer, more compact vehicles will be able to stop there.

One stop, however, has been removed—and it seems unlikely to return in the near future. While the AquaLink used to stop at Alamitos Bay, Rainbow Harbor, and the Queen Mary, Long Beach Transit has removed the Queen Mary stop amid the ship’s ongoing shutdown.

That removal aside, Chavarria said there have been discussions to potentially expand the AquaLink service, though there are no solid plans at the moment.

“Our hope is to expand service, because at the end of the day this is about moving people and connecting our community,” she said.

That community, as Long Beach Transit sees it, goes well beyond Downtown Long Beach residents. Chavarria said the agency sees Long Beach as a “tourist city.” At its core, she said, the unique experience AquaLink provides plays an important role in LBT’s mission.

“Being able to provide an opportunity to transport people from one side of our waterfront to another,” Chavarria said, “is really an incredible thing.”

Christian May-Suzuki

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.