Buses preparing to roll on Highway 41

After years of planning, discussion, and at times, heated debate, public transit service from Fresno to Yosemite Valley is gearing up to begin in about two months.

Although the exact start-up date has yet to be established pending finalizing of a federal funding package, Dick Whittington, transit manager for the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) the past seven years, hopes to see the service running daily by the Memorial Day weekend.

The service comes after five years of planning by YARTS and the Fresno Council of Governments (FCOG), leading to a recent agreement between the two entities.

The service, scheduled to make five round-trips per day, will pick-up riders at the Fresno-Yosemite International (FYI) Airport, Amtrak and Greyhound stations, Fresno State, and other locations in north Fresno. Although specific Mountain Area locations have yet to be confirmed, stops are expected to include the Coarsegold Historic Village, and two locations in Oakhurst.

Although the finalized schedule and bus stop locations will be released by May 1, the north-bound bus to Yosemite is expected to make three stops in Oakhurst in the morning, one late-afternoon, and one in the evening. The south-bound bus is tentatively scheduled to leave Oakhurst for Fresno once in the morning, once mid-afternoon, and making three trips in the evening.

After departing Oakhurst north-bound, stops are tentatively planned for Tenaya Lodge in Fish Camp, and the Wawona Hotel, before arriving in Yosemite with stops at Curry Village, the Ahwahnee Hotel, visitor center, and Yosemite Lodge. The trip from Fresno to Yosemite Lodge will take about four hours.

“I have always thought that service on Highway 41 was a 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 four million visitors a year. A 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 to Amtrak and go to Merced.’ How can that be good for anyone’s business in Madera County or Fresno County?”

A round-trip ticket from Fresno to Yosemite Valley is expected to be $30 per person. An Oakhurst to Fresno round-trip ticket will be about $15. For those utilizing the bus to go to Yosemite, the ticket-price includes the Yosemite gate fee ($25 per car off-season, $30 in-season), and riders can connect to free Yosemite shuttles once inside the park. One child, 12 and under, rides free with one paying adult.

According to Whittington, the operating and marketing budget for the Highway 41 service is close to $2.4 million. The funding comes from the federal government (congestion, mitigation, and air quality fund - $1.33 million), a federal Intercity Bus Program Grant ($300,000), the National Park Service ($300,000), estimated ticket fare funds ($200,000), state Air Pollution Control District ($183,520), and Amtrak ($50,000).

“YARTS has been passionately discussed in Eastern Madera County for many years,” Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce President Dan Rule said. “Education is a key component as this new bus service rolls out. While some welcome the service, others are concerned about potential cost to taxpayers, changes to the way our visitors experience Eastern Madera County, and a potential negative impact on traffic on Highway 41. It is up to our communities to find creative ways to mitigate these concerns and potential impacts.”

“The chamber is committed to working with Madera County, YARTS, and our local business partners now that the new public transit service will begin this summer,” Rule added. “We need to continue to identify and proactively take advantage of the opportunities that this service can bring to our region.”

Rule said the chamber has only two short months to work with hospitality, tourism, and retain partners to get everything in place.

“Once the buses do begin running through Madera County, we will have to look closely at the ridership statistics and look for additional opportunities,” Rule said.

Wheeler strong supporter

“Constituents have been contacting me for years asking what could be done to increase transportation opportunities in our area,” Wheeler said. “ People want to be able to get to and from Fresno for doctor appointments, to visit family, and even to shuttle to and from the airport so they do not have to pay to leave their vehicle. It looks like it is finally coming to our area and it’s best for us to participate in this process by establishing central locations in our community for the buses to stop.”

Wheeler feels having locations where tourists can easily be picked-up and dropped-off is a win-win for everyone.

“Not only does this service provide a direct benefit for our citizens but it also has an indirect benefit that encourages increased spending in our community,” Wheeler said. “Since Fresno COG decided to move forward with this project, we are best served to cooperate with them so that we too can reap the benefits.”

Past opposition to service

YARTS has been operating for 15 years in Mariposa, Merced, and Mono counties but historically, chambers of commerce in the Mountain Area, and the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau have taken a strong stance opposing YARTS, although in 2012, the North Fork Chamber of Commerce and North Fork Community Development Council came out in support of a YARTS system through Madera County.

The largest issue that had business leaders and others opposing the plan was based on language in the 1980 Yosemite General Management Plan which stated “a study will be undertaken to find a method to totally eliminate cars and other obtrusive vehicles from Yosemite Valley.” The Management Plan is the legal document for the park, which establishes the framework guiding all management planning efforts.

But that wording was changed in the 2014 General Management Plan Revision to read: “The intent of the National Park Service is to remove “automobile congestion” from Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove ....”

Two years ago, park spokesman Scott Gediman said there is no plan to eliminate private vehicle access to Yosemite National Park.

Former Oakhurst resident Lou Aceto, has been a critic of YARTS from the very beginning.

“I still feel the National Park Service intends to remove all automobile traffic from the valley,” Aceto said. “The immediate plan is to greatly reduce traffic there, by restricting automobile use ... and encouraging visitors to leave their automobiles at parking areas with bus service to the valley.”

Aceto has 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 taxpayers,” 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.”

Wheeler and Whittington disagree with Aceto’s concerns.

“So you think subsidies are bad? Then shut down the post offices, and all the fire and police stations,” Wheeler previously stated. “Amtrak and city buses and vans are subsidized - I hate subsidized programs too, but that’s the way it is in America.”

“We subsidize roads for people to drive on and transit for people who can’t or don’t want to drive,” Whittington said.

Madera County Supervisor Rick Farinelli is also opposed to the service.

“YARTS is still bad for the taxpayers and Madera County,” Farinelli said recently. “Madera County Transportation Commission ran a study that showed that Madera County residents have no interest in riding YARTS, and it looks like that lack of interest remains high. Because of this, it is still highly subsidized by taxpayers. It’s a foreshadowing of the coming High Speed Rail debacle, if it’s (high speed rail) ever finished.

Farinelli believes Madera County transit buses, though subsidized, provide a vital resource to Madera’s poorest citizens, giving them the opportunity to move about the county.

“That statement cannot be made about YARTS, which provides recreational access and employee shuttling – two purposes that taxpayers should not be on the hook for,” Farinelli said. “The family road trip to Yosemite is the lifeblood of the local economies surrounding the park. Cars on their way to the park visit our shops, eat at our restaurants, and purchase gas at our stations. The taxpayer-subsidized operation and promotion of YARTS takes those travelers out of their cars and onto buses that pass Madera County by without stopping. That’s why most of the area’s businesses and chambers remain opposed to the system.”

In 2011, State Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, then a member of the Madera County Board of Supervisors and the county transportation board, said busing would not promote a meaningful experience for Mountain Area and Yosemite visitors, and still feels the same today.

“Busing will herd visitors between set locations like cattle, and will take away from leisurely travel time that helps the local economy, giving tourists more flexibility to shop and dine,” Bigelow said.

“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 one of his town hall meetings.

The staunch opposition to buses traveling on Highway 41 through Eastern Madera County has seemed to soften when the Fresno COG took the lead to provide the service, thus circumventing, to a large degree, Madera County in the decision process.

Whittington said he is excited to finally see the service is close to becoming a realty.

“In addition to improving the transportation needs of Eastern Madera County, people in Oakhurst and the surrounding areas will be able to go online and purchase Amtrak ‘thruway’ tickets, ride to Fresno and connect with Amtrak to travel anywhere in the country,” Whittington said. “And Mountain Area residents will be able to make day trips to Fresno for medical appointments or other business, including going to Fresno State.”

According to Whittington, in 2014, Amtrak sold more than 13,000 tickets to Yosemite via the Merced-Mariposa route.

With the addition of Highway 41, all four main entrances to the park will now offer bus service. Highway 120 East over Tioga Pass operates only during summer months, 120 West from Sonora and Groveland went online two years ago, and Highway 140 from Merced and Mariposa has been operating for 15 years.

Tony Boren, executive director of the Fresno COG for the past eight years, said he is happy to see the bus service finally happening. He said, unlike in the 90s when the YARTS program started, today there is wide-spread recognition that reducing vehicle miles traveled benefits air quality, public health, traffic congestion, and the overall quality of life.

“Four million people visit Yosemite annually, with the vast majority of those people arriving in automobiles on Highway 41,” Boren said. “We are looking to reduce vehicle miles traveled throughout the state, and especially in the valley due to our air quality issues. It’s in everyone’s interest to improve air quality by reducing automobile miles.”

About 35% of the ridership on Highway 140 (Merced to Yosemite) are commuters, traveling in both directions. According to Whittington, ridership has grown steadily from the beginning, with the exception being the road closure of 140 by a rock slide and during the Rim Fire park closure in 2013.

During the 2012-13 fiscal year, annual ridership hit nearly 100,000, but dropped to 91,800 the following year due to the fire and temporary park closure.

Gediman, who rides YARTS to Yosemite Valley from El Portal most days, said several hundred park employees utilize the service from Mariposa and surrounding areas.

National Park Service employees’ fares are paid by the government as an incentive to use public transit. That incentive will also be available for NPS employees who live on the Highway 41 corridor.

“We support the system 100%,” Gediman said. “The service provides a great opportunity for people to get to the park after flying into Fresno. For every park visitor and employee on a bus, that’s one less person in a car, and one less parking spot utilized. It makes for an easier and more enjoyable experience for the park visitor.”

Rhonda Salisbury, CEO of the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau, is less enthusiastic about the service.

“The Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau does not feel that YARTS will have a great effect on tourism in Madera County since ridership is low on the Highway 140 route,” Salisbury said. “However, since it will be coming up Highway 41, we will work with the hotels, restaurants, and shops to get the most exposure should riders decide to stop and stay in our gateway towns.”

Million riders in 15 years

Last summer, YARTS carried its one millionth rider.

One of the improvements that YARTS has made in the last couple of years is the use of portable credit/debit card readers on the buses.

“Credit card sales started out slowly for the first month, but grew exponentially since, and total credit/debit card sales in the last fiscal year amounted to just shy of 25% of total farebox revenue last year,” Whittington said.

For a number of years, YARTS leased buses from its contractor, VIA Adventures of Merced, but in 2009 that started to change and YARTS now has 10 MCI buses.

Whittington said the buses that will be used on Highway 41 are clean diesel and California Air Resources Board compliant.

YARTS contracts with Merced County Association of Governments (MCAG) for management, accounting and other administrative services, marketing, and grant applications and processing. That contract is reviewed annually.

Whittington said the YARTS buses, with a price tag of about $585,000 with the necessary accessories, operate as clean as compressed natural gas buses.

“They seat 50, have restrooms, ADA lifts, room for two wheelchairs, overhead storage, individual reading lights, three-point seat belts on all seats and child safety-seat tie-downs,” Whittington said. “The buses have interior and exterior security cameras and automatic tire chains, and YARTS buses have never been involved in an injury accident.”

Whittington said he expects the service on Highway 41 to be very successful.

“With the big international airport in Fresno, and connections with Amtrak and Greyhound, along with the half million population in Central California, our challenge is simply getting the word out about the new service, not only locally, but to the entire world,” Whittington said. “, the website for the service regularly is contacted from around the world. It will take a little time to get it working the way we anticipate it can, but we will get there.”

Wheeler sits on the non-voting YARTS Joint Powers Authority board, and Rule is expected to be seated on the YARTS Authority Advisory Committee.

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