The Public Transit Challenge |

The Public Transit Challenge

Emma Garrard / Sierra SunPassengers get off the bus in Tahoe City Wednesday morning.

Its another brisk morning, standing on the frozen earth on the side of the street, counting the cars that are whizzing past a little too close for comfort. Some of them are full, most are not. My alarm clock woke me up a half-hour early this morning, just so I could catch the bus that would take me to work on time. An hour or so later, Im leaning against a wooden post indicating the place where the TART bus should eventually stop.Im riding the bus, and only the bus, for the sake of research. For one week, I attempted to leave my car parked in my driveway. I failed. To get down to it, the existing services did not accommodate my needs.I couldnt ride the bus when I had a meeting in Truckee that I knew would end after the last bus round. Or when I had an interview at the top of Highway 267. Or when I had several errands to run, all in separate directions in a short amount of time. About ten minutes after the fact, the bus lumbers to a stop. I gather my small change and hop into the crowded, heated compartment, and am transported into an international realm. In just a few days of riding public transportation, I met many people who spoke Spanish, a person from the Philippines and several South Africans.As Jancis Martin, a Tahoma resident who consistently rides the bus to work in Incline Village, puts it, the seasonal workers bring an international chatter to the bus.The shifting gears rev up the noisy engine and the air hangs with the smell of exhaust. I squeeze into a blue plastic seat, and make myself comfortable next to a few strangers. Sometimes all of the seats were taken and other times there was only one other passenger on board. Several riders are engaged in quiet conversations, but mostly, the unspoken rule of silence dominates the sound space. As the bus picks up speed, I gaze out the window and stare at the blurred scenery, drifting off for a few moments before my destination arrives.I am so much more relaxed traveling this way than I am driving, Martin said, looking up from her book of crossword puzzles.A few moments later, the sliding doors grant my exit and I arrive at work about a half hour after I walked out my front door.

The first morning I planned to catch the bus to work, I missed it.And rather than wait another hour for the next bus, I decided to postpone my public transportation experiment one day. So I grabbed my keys, hopped in the car parked in my driveway and drove myself.The success of public transportation, I thought that morning, hinges in large part around whether its convenient.People support public transportation, said Dennis Oliver, spokesperson for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. But they support it for other people. They want it, but they want other people to ride it.Lets face it. We live in a car culture. And the local topography, infrastructure and existing service levels for public transportation do not encourage people to walk past their car parked in the driveway on their way to the bus stop. You really need to change attitudes to get people out of their cars, Oliver said. Because we live a lifestyle centered around our cars.Local agencies and growing trends are seeking to change our gas-guzzling culture by increasing transportation opportunities.We continue to put more service out there, and the service is being utilized, said Executive Director Steve Teshara of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association. But moderate service improvements wont change the mindsets of generations of drivers. Communities, themselves, must be built to promote public transit.Until we have communities that are really designed around transit use, youre not encouraging people to get out of their cars, Oliver said.Thats why one of the central goals of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agencys Community Enhancement Program, a critical step in the agencys pathways process which will update their 20-year regional plan, is centered around fostering the growth of transportation options.By asking developers for dense mixed-use buildings and central gathering areas that will link the public to a range of transit opportunities, the planning agency is striving to promote downtown areas where people will walk and wont need to drive.[Tahoe] is not a city, Oliver said. Its not New York City. Its not San Francisco. And so its a different animal. But that doesnt mean that we cant build the town centers to encourage [public transportation] use.

Existing service levels for the Tahoe Area Regional Transit system cater to a specific population in the area those who dont have another form of transportation.People who are going to and from work, said Scott Miller, who has been driving TART buses for the past 10 years. Jan Colyer, executive director of the Truckee North Tahoe Transportation Management Association, said most of the TART riders are workers, especially international ski resort employees. But other facets of public transit, such as the trolleys and shuttles, are used by tourists.According to records kept by the transportation management association, passengers boarded buses, trolleys and shuttles in the Tahoe-Truckee area more than 500,000 times during the 2006/2007 fiscal year a 10 percent increase in ridership from the previous year. People say the buses are empty, but theyre not, Colyer said. Ridership numbers continue to break records each year, Colyer said. And to meet the increased demand, local transportation groups and government agencies are improving services, step by step, with every coming season.This winter, the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association is sponsoring four night shuttles that will provide hourly service operating until midnight, making rounds from Squaw Valley to the North Shore stateline to Tahoma filling a void noticed by many North Tahoe bus riders, including myself on the evening I ran out of a meeting early to catch the last bus of the day.After anticipating an end to a political discussion that never came, I grabbed my pack and sprinted to the bus stop for fear my ride would pass me by and then what? Kings Beach resident Bryan Escalona, who rides the bus to work in Squaw Valley, said he usually hitchhikes and walks at night. I wasnt about to hitchhike, and already had in mind a friend who I could call. But it turned out my sprint wasnt worth the effort because the bus was graciously five minutes late. For the most part, riders schedule themselves around the last bus of the day, said Ron Newton, while he was driving the last bus route of the evening. But casino workers, restaurant staff and people going out at night to the local bar cant schedule themselves around a bus schedule with a last round at 5 p.m., Newton said. Next to night service, passengers voiced the need for more frequent service. Public transit in Tahoe is a bit frustrating, said Simone Blase, a 21-year-old from South Africa, one morning. The bus doesnt run very often.Increased frequency would solve many qualms with local transportation services, Colyer said. It would shorten the linear distance between North Shore towns and Truckee. And ridership would increase because the bus would match peoples schedules. People are more likely to wait a half hour, rather than the existing hour, for the next bus, she said.The frequency really does make a huge difference, Colyer said. But then everything costs double.

Riding the bus for a week, or attempting to do so, was a worthwhile experiment. I gained a certain appreciation for those who do make the effort to ride the bus daily. And honestly, the bus aint so bad when its feasible to ride. But dont take my word for it, try it out yourself.

Money is the most limiting factor for public transportation, which is funded by a combination of private, local, state and federal dollars. Because its a rural area, and treated like that in the state of California, the funding is going to be limited compared to the expectations that people have, said Will Garner, public works manager for Placer County.The annual operating budget for the Tahoe Area Regional Transit system is about $2.2 million, Garner said. While Placer County covers most of that, the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, Washoe County, the Town of Truckee and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency also contribute.The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency administers state and federal funding to public transportation systems throughout the basin, said Spokesperson Dennis Oliver.Fares for TART, which charge passengers $1.50 one way, only recover about 20 percent of the total cost for public transit services.Any very large improvements, we just dont have the funding to do, Garner said.But local agencies and groups are committed to moderate improvements, such as the night shuttle, ski resort shuttles, the Emerald Bay shuttle, the Trolley and increased frequency during the summer.Basically, we have to fund a lot of the services that are beyond TARTs basic ability to fund, said Executive Steve Teshara of the resort association.

I dont support automobile traffic, said Zeke Pierce, 22, as to why he rides the bus. I dont want to be part of the problem.Riding public transportation means less vehicles are on the road, which brings a wide range of subsequent environmental benefits, including less traffic congestion, air quality and reduced noise levels, said Dennis Oliver, spokesperson for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.While it is widely known that roadway sediment runs off into the lake, studies indicate that vehicles themselves have little impact on lake clarity, said Larry Benoit, the agencys water quality program manager. According to the pollutant reduction opportunity report, a 25 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled would only result in a less than one percent reduction in the fine particles running into the lake. Urban uplands, however, which take into account all of the highways in the Basin, account for 72 percent of the sediment running into the lake, the report said.In this analysis there was really nothing for the impact of wheels and pulverizing that road sand and breaking it down to finer particles, Benoit said. On another note, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and Placer County purchased ten compressed natural gas buses, which have cleaner emissions than a typical diesel bus, said the countys Public Works Manager Will Garner.

3.3 million – Dollars worth of public transportation service expansions desired in the Tahoe Basin, including additional routes on the West shore, between Incline Village and South Shore and over Kingsbury Grade. 46.4 – Percentage of state funding received for public transportation in the Tahoe Basin. State and federal dollars are administered by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. 20 – Percentage of funding for the Tahoe Area Regional Transit recovered from bus fares. 2.2 million – Total dollars in TARTs annual operating budget. 363,372 – Total ridership on TART buses and trolleys during the 2006/2007 fiscal year.

The Truckee North Tahoe Transportation Management Association keeps up-to-date schedules and information on public transportation services on their Web site:

Executive Director Jan Colyer of the Truckee North Tahoe Transportation Management Association: I usually dont [ride the bus] like I should. I ride it for quality control … but for actual business meetings and things like that I do not use it … We dont have enough frequency, its not convenient. And then to get from my house down to where I could catch a bus is two miles downhill and two miles uphill. Executive Director Steve Teshara of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association: I do ride the bus, from time to time, absolutely. But Teshara said the bus was not his primary mode of transportation because I have a very bizarre schedule that keeps me up early in the morning and out late at night. Thats the one thing we havent figured out how to do, is the meeting schedule on public transit. Board Member Ron McIntyre of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association: I dont ride it here. However, I do go to Aspen to ski and I go to Sun Valley to ski and I absolutely unequivocally park my car and ride public transportation when Im in those areas. And the reason I do it, is because its miserable to drive in those places when you have convenient public transit that takes you where you want to go.

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