After just 14 months of operation, YARTS, the bus transportation system from Fresno to Yosemite, with five daily stops in Coarsegold and Oakhurst, is tentatively scheduled to shut-down Sept. 30, with service planned to resume next May.
The service, the result of five years of planning by the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS), and the Fresno Council of Governments (FCOG), had an annual operating and marketing budget close to $2.4 million.
More than half the funds, $1.33 million, came from federal funds (CMAQ - congestion, mitigation, and air quality fund), with additional funding coming from 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).
Tony Boren, executive director of FCOG, explained that the CMAQ funds could only be used for the first two years of operation, and with those funds providing the largest share of the budget, its just not financially possible to operate the service year-round.
“The good news is that we believe we have a strategy to continue the service,” Boren said. “Instead of being a year-round service, it will operate from mid-May to mid-September in 2017. This strategy will allow us to stretch the service utilizing existing funding beyond the initial two years and optimistically until Labor Dry 2020.”
YARTS, with five trips a day, carried 3,530 riders on Highway 41 in the month of June, a 107% increase over June of 2015. The July 2016 ridership was 3,384. By comparison, the Highway 140 ridership (Merced to Yosemite) for July, with eight trips a day, carried 8,774 passengers.
Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, a big supporter of the service, said it was sad the service can not run year-round.
“We were hoping to get some additional funding from other sources combined with increased ridership to keep the service running year-round,” Wheeler said. “But for now, we have not been able to find alternative funding. It’s such a good mode of transportation, especially for older people afraid or who can not afford to drive in the mountains. But at least the service will run seasonally when the service is most needed during the peak of Yosemite visitation.”
Wheeler said people often thank him for helping get YARTS started on Highway 41, providing transportation to Fresno for doctor appointments and other services.
Scott Gediman, spokesman for Yosemite National Park, said the park will continue to support YARTS with its annual $345,000 contribution. “It’s unfortunate they could not get more funding to replace the lost funds,” Gediman said.
With the addition of Highway 41 last year, all four main entrances to the park had YARTS 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 more than 15 years. The recent decision only affects the Highway 41 route.
The bus service currently makes five round-trip a day, picking up riders at the Fresno-Yosemite International (FYI) Airport, Amtrak and Greyhound stations, Fresno State, and the Highway 41-145 Park and Ride, before stops in Coarsegold, Oakhurst, and Fish Camp before entering Yosemite. An Oakhurst to Fresno round-trip ticket is $15.
Like many, Boren was happy to see the service when it started last year.
“Four million people visit Yosemite annually, with the vast majority of those people arriving in automobiles on Highway 41,” said Boren. “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.”
Dick Whittington, transit manager for YARTS, was enthusiastic about the Fresno to Yosemite service when it began on May 23, 2015.
“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.”
The Highway 41 YARTS service was not without its detractors.
Former Oakhurst resident Lou Aceto, has been a critic of YARTS from the very beginning, pointing to 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 past.
Wheeler has always disagreed 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.”
Oakhurst/Coarsegold Tea Party Coordinator Jon Pero, in a Sierra Star guest commentary last year, wrote that if running a bus from the Yosemite airport to Yosemite is such a great idea, then why not let private free market entrepreneurs capitalize on this opportunity. “Why burden taxpayers for entertainment and subsidize park employees,” Pero asked.
“This is a rubber tire boondoggle just like the High Speed Rail boondoggle and a subsidized Amtrak boondoggle that is losing billions every year,” wrote Pero.
Details: YARTS, (209) 723-3153, firstname.lastname@example.org.