The Madera County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 last week to allow Madera County Transportation Commission staff to begin public outreach in Eastern Madera County for a proposed public transit service from Fresno to Yosemite National Park, a project being pushed by Fresno Council of Governments (COG).
The Fresno COG has been studying the possibility of running a bus service from Fresno to Yosemite for several years. In May, Fresno COG approved $15,000 for public outreach after the Madera County commission opposed a feasibility study last year on grounds there was lack of adequate outreach to the tourism industry in Eastern Madera County.
"Fresno is going to do this no matter what," said Patricia Taylor, executive director of the Madera County Transportation Commission, about the proposed bus route from Fresno to Yosemite. "They anticipate starting a demonstration transit service program next summer, and in order to do that, a lot of planning has to happen soon regarding location of stops ...
"I don't think they really want the buses to stop in Madera County if they are not welcome -- they have made that comment before. Eventually, down the road, if they choose to do a transit service, it will most likely be through YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System)."
Historically, Eastern Madera County has taken a strong stance opposing YARTS, stemming largely from language in the 1980 Yosemite General Management Plan which states that "a study will be undertaken to find a method to totally eliminate cars and other obtrusive vehicles from Yosemite Valley."
"In the Merced River Plan and overall for Yosemite National Park, there is no plan to eliminate private vehicle access to Yosemite Valley -- that's not on the table," said park spokesman Scott Gediman about the park's stance on access. "We are a part of a settlement agreement where we do have to come up with a daily cap on visitors, but the number we come up with (by next summer) -- does not dictate the number of vehicles or buses."
Once a daily cap on visitors is established, the park service will then work out how they plan to implement that, Gediman said.
Annually, Yosemite had more than 4 million visitors in both 2011 and 2010.
Oakhurst resident Lou Aceto, along with Supervisor Frank Bigelow, who voted against the YARTS outreach along with Supervisor David Rogers, said until Yosemite's General Management Plan is updated -- which will occur in July, 2013 after a record of decision is submitted to the court for the Merced River Plan -- the Mountain Area should remain opposed to a transit service through the county.
Supervisor Tom Wheeler warned that if Madera County remains opposed to YARTS, Fresno COG will likely direct buses to drive through the Mountain Area without stopping.
"All other gateway communities, including Tuolumne who also adamantly opposed YARTS in the 1990s, have come to the conclusion that the bus service is simply an option for tourists and will not prohibit vehicle access -- Madera County is the only county not utilizing the service," Wheeler said at his Oakhurst Town Hall meeting July 26. "According to the National Park Service, 84% of visitors to Yosemite Valley use personal vehicles. Only 4.8% use commercial tour buses, and only 1.3% use YARTS."
The current proposed Fresno-to-Yosemite route would include stops at the Fresno Greyhound and Amtrak stations, Fresno Yosemite International Airport, Fresno State, and potentially Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino and then Oakhurst before entering Yosemite.
Earlier this week, the North Fork Chamber of Commerce and North Fork Community Development Council came out in support of a YARTS system through Madera County.
"We give this support in the hopes that our communities will be represented at the table to determine both service routes that benefit our local citizens' transportation needs and stops that are in the interest of our small businesses," wrote Scott O'Brian Marsh, president of the North Fork Chamber of Commerce, in a letter to the Madera County Board of Supervisors.
In 1999, by board action, the counties of Madera and Tuolumne withdrew from YARTS, and the Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce and Yosemite Sierra Visitor's Bureau in Oakhurst supported that withdrawal.
Starting this year, Tuolumne County reversed that decision and began running YARTS buses into the park via a two-year pilot project funded by the park service, $171,000 a year, in an effort to reduce heavy summer traffic congestion in Yosemite.
"We need to decide whether we are at the table or not," Wheeler said. "A stop in Oakhurst means tourism dollar -- it means tourists staying overnight and utilizing our hotels, restaurants and other attractions. We could even approach Fresno COG with adding a stop in North Fork/Bass Lake, and this system would also allow our residents to catch the bus to Fresno."
Dan Cunning, chief executive officer for the Yosemite Sierra Visitor's Bureau in Oakhurst, said at the July 24 supervisors meeting that he is concerned YARTS buses will reduce visitor stops in Oakhurst rather than add new visitors, and that visitors will end up staying in Fresno hotels instead of in Oakhurst.
Dick Whittington, YARTS transit manager, said that while there will always be tourists who will spend a couple hours in Yosemite and then make the round-trip back to Fresno, the demand for hotel rooms for tourists headed to Yosemite increases the closer you get to the park boundary. In Mariposa County, Yosemite View Lodge is the No. 1 seller of YARTS tickets, with tourists catching buses to and from the hotel, he said.
Last year, Amtrak also sold 12,000 thoroughfare tickets to Yosemite via YARTS through Mariposa County, he added.
"I have always thought that service on Highway 41 was no-brainer," Whittington said. "You have the largest city in the Valley with the largest international airport in the Valley with Amtrak and Greyhound connections at one end of Highway 41 and Yosemite National Park on the other end, which now has 4 million visitors a year ... It's just a no-brainer that it's going to happen -- it can't not, it just makes too much sense. A young woman who works at the information booth at the Fresno airport told me she has people who often come to her asking about getting on a bus to Yosemite, saying they can't drive, and she has to say, 'Go downtown and go to Amtrak and go to Merced.' How can that be good for anyone's business in Madera County or Fresno County?"
Aceto criticized YARTS for its low ridership, largely used by Yosemite employees, and the high cost of government subsidies to run it.
"Eighty-five percent of YARTS' operating budget comes from the tax payers," Aceto said. "In the Tea Party, one goal is fiscal responsibility and to terminate grants for YARTS. If you're a true Conservative or Tea Partier, then get rid of all these transit programs which are not profitable."
"So you think subsidies are bad? Then shut down the post offices, all the fire and police," Wheeler said. "All the Amtrak and city buses and vans ... I hate subsides too but that's the way it is in America."
"If we want to do away with all the subsidies, then do away with subsidies to roads, to water that irrigates some of the farms -- a whole bunch of stuff, all of which has an effect on the economy," Whittington said.
"If we could haul as few as 10% of the visitors via bus to Yosemite, it would have a huge effect on the quality of visit in the park," Whittington said. "If we don't do something to lessen the impact of visitation, then one of two things is true -- it's going to become a much less desirable place to go, or the courts may impose some kind of draconian solution in the park to remove the traffic and congestion they perceive as affecting the Merced River. It's beholden to us, if we care about the park and gateway business communities, to reduce those impacts."
Taylor said Madera County Transportation Commission staff is now working to determine the best way to go about public outreach, which will likely begin around fall, and will probably include some Town Hall meetings, a public survey and scheduling meetings with area chambers and the visitor bureau.