Results of transportation survey released

After more than 10 years of discussion on the pros and cons of a YARTS bus route from the Valley to Yosemite on Highway 41, Fresno pushing for a new plan

editor@sierrastar.comDecember 23, 2013 

A random phone survey of 350 residents of Eastern Madera County shows that only 3% of survey respondents have even heard of the proposed public bus route to Fresno proposal. But the report states that after receiving general information about the Fresno to Yosemite proposed route, 59% thought it was a good idea, while 33% thought it was a bad idea. Only 8% were uncertain. Furthermore, 56% of respondents thought it would have positive impacts on the community, and 31% felt it would have a negative impact.

The survey, at a cost of $15,000, was conducted by EMC Research, Inc. of Oakland, was taken from Oct. 28 – Nov. 4. It focused on the public transit proposal by the Fresno Council of Governments (COG) to implement busing services between Fresno and Yosemite along Highway 41. The Fresno Council of Governments paid for the survey and stemmed from concern by the Madera County Transportation Commission (MCTC) over inadequate input about the plan from Eastern Madera County residents.

Although this plan is not specifically part of the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS), those opposed to YARTS feel this plan could end up being operated by YARTS.

"It has always been assumed from our meetings with the Fresno Council of Governments that YARTS would run this service," said Max Stauffer, president of the Yosemite Sierra Visitors bureau.

Dylan Stone, with the Madera County Transportation Committee, said YARTS could be the manager of the program due to their current role in service to the park.

"I was not surprised to learn that the majority of those surveyed would be supportive of the transit proposal," District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler said. "I truly believe that this project has the potential to benefit our local tourism industry in numerous ways, giving it a much-needed boost."

"This is exactly the kind of information we want to give to Fresno COG to ensure that our interests are being met," Wheeler said. "These stops need to be well-planned, and designed with both tourists and local residents in mind in order to be successful."

In the past, Wheeler warned that if Madera County remains opposed to such a plan, Fresno COG would likely direct buses to drive through the Mountain Area without stopping.

The current proposed Fresno-to-Yosemite route would include stops at the Fresno Greyhound and Amtrak stations, Fresno Yosemite International Airport, Fresno State, then Oakhurst before entering Yosemite.

According to a feasibility study by Fresno GOG, capitol coats to start up the bus run would be between $6 and $9 million and about $1.8 to $3 million in annual operational costs.

Historically, Eastern Madera County has taken a strong stance opposing YARTS or any other government subsidized service, 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."

Scott Gediman, park spokesman, has stated in the past that there is no plan to eliminate private vehicle access to Yosemite Valley.

The Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau and Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce are opposed to YARTS, although the chamber is looking at how to mitigate the potential impact of the Fresno COG public transportation proposal.

"As far as I know, the plan calls for the bus to make a few brief stops in Oakhurst with no opportunity to shop,m" Stauffer said. "Until the Merced River Plan is complete we will not know if the language will change to the effect that vehicles will not eventually be banned from Yosemite Valley. Generally speaking, the preferred way to travel to Yosemite is by car. Travellers will rent cars to see Yosemite before they will get on a bus."

Stauffer called the plan an effort by Fresno County to use tax payer funds to make Fresno the 'gateway to Yosemite' and rob Oakhurst of tourism dollars.

Dan Cunning is the executive director of the visitor's bureau, and feels the plan is not feasible in today's economic down-turn and the government's financial set backs.

"Who do they think will ride this bus and how are they going to afford to operate it," Cunning asked. "It's a plan that makes no sense. I understand Mr. Wheeler's drive to make this happen because he feels it will benefit the business community here — but these people are on a one and a half hour trip to Yosemite ... What is their motivation to stop in Oakhurst, a town that is not pedestrian friendly. They just want to get to Yosemite."

Dick Whittington, YARTS transit manager, has stated 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.

"I have always thought that service on Highway 41 was a no-brainer," Whittington said a year ago. "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 happen ... it just makes too much sense.

Lou Aceto, a long time opponent of a tax payer subsidized regional bus transportation to Yosemite, feels the critical point of regional bus transportation on highway 41 to Yosemite, moves the National Park Service closer to realizing the 1980 GMP goal of totally removing private vehicle access to Yosemite Valley.

"They have already removed 6,000 parking spaces and the Merced River Plan removes an additional 289 day visitor parking spaces, when you include an additional 200 spaces in El Portal out of the valley," Aceto said.

While referring to the Highway 41 route before county supervisors 16 months ago, Patricia Taylor, executive director of the Madera County Transportation Commission, said "Fresno is going to do this no matter what ... 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."

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.

Other highlights of the survey included:

Transportation is not a top-of-mind concern for area residents, and there is little awareness of the proposed bus service. Only 4% of respondents mentioned transportation as "the most important issue facing Madera County." Important issues included jobs/employment (20%), crime and the economy (both at 8%, and taxes and government spending (6%), followed by politics and homelessness (5%), water and education (4%), and healthcare (3%).

Fourteen percent say they are very likely to use the bus service, with 65% saying they are not likely to use it.

Participants suggested the junction of Highway 41 and 49 as the best stop for the bus service in Oakhurst.

Outside of Oakhurst, they suggested a stop in the Coarsegold area.

65% of respondents viewed the service primarily as a means to visit Yosemite and not as a local commuting option.

Taking cars off the road is the top-named benefit of the service, and people see the most positive impacts for seniors and people with disabilities, Yosemite visitors, and the Oakhurst community.

Top concerns of the route are the potential cost to taxpayers, traffic impacts, and impact on individuals and families.

Click here to download the executive summary.

Click here to download the 36-page survery results.

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