CA: Unless officials act swiftly, bus service from Fresno to Yosemite will disappear | Opinion

Jan. 10, 2024
The only public transportation option between Fresno and Yosemite National Park is on the verge of disappearing, unless Fresno County and the city of Fresno forge a last-minute deal .

The only public transportation option between Fresno and Yosemite National Park is on the verge of disappearing.

That is, unless Fresno County and the city of Fresno forge a last-minute deal to continue what should be an essential service of the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System.

What will it take? Cooperation from two municipalities that don’t tend to see eye to eye, plus a decent amount of money. A dollop of public pressure certainly can’t hurt.

With Yosemite about to implement reservation permits for much of 2024 — virtually eliminating day trips to the park that weren’t planned in advance — the timing couldn’t be worse for Fresno-area residents and visitors.

It’s up to our public servants to not let that happen.

YARTS began in 2000, providing bus service between Yosemite and Merced. The Fresno route, which accessed the park along the Highway 41 corridor, was added in 2015 with stops at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, the downtown Amtrak station and (for a time) north Fresno.

By the end of 2022, the federal transportation grants cobbled together by the Fresno Council of Governments to fund the Fresno YARTS route had dried up. The service would’ve been eliminated last year if not for an “11th hour” save by the city of Fresno, which came up with $75,000 to fund one daily roundtrip.

The city’s action came so late in the game that the ground transportation page at flyfresno.com had already been updated to read: “Visitors to Yosemite National Park must make arrangements for private transportation.”

Whoops.

Despite the erroneous info, 4,838 passengers rode the 41 YARTS bus last year between May 5 and Sept. 8. That represented a 48% decrease from 2022 when three daily roundtrips were offered between Fresno and Yosemite.

YARTS doesn’t want its Fresno service to go away, either. In October, the YARTS Joint Powers Authority (made up of two county supervisors apiece from Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Mono and Tuolumne counties) voted unanimously to invite Fresno County as a full member.

Whether Fresno County has reciprocated the interest is unclear. Supervisor Nathan Magsig, who received a letter from YARTS asking him to attend its October annual meeting but declined to go, said the matter is better left up to Supervisors Sal Quintero and Steve Brandau whose districts include the bus route in question.

“If YARTS went to the national park in my district, I’d be fighting tooth and nail to keep it going,” Magsig said in reference to Kings Canyon.

My response to Magsig is that residents of his district, which mostly encompasses Clovis and foothill and mountain areas, deserve a public transportation option to Yosemite. Not just Fresno folks.

The city of Fresno, which operates the airport, also has a stake in this matter. Some might even say a responsibility.

You can’t call yourself Fresno Yosemite International Airport and enjoy the marketing benefits of that name, call your airport bar the John Muir Tavern, install a faux giant sequoia grove outside the security checkpoint and then tell Yosemite travelers, “Sorry, but the only way to get there is by renting a car.”

Fresno city manager Georgeanne White seems to recognize this. White said the city is interested in partnering with the county, which could include sharing costs and representation on the JPA, but those talks have yet to take place.

What are we waiting for? Let’s get the discussions underway. With the next YARTS board meeting scheduled for Jan. 31, there isn’t much time until peak-season bus service resumes in April — with or without a Fresno route.

Costs of YARTS bus
According to YARTS executive director Stacie Guzman, Fresno County would be charged $50,600 per year to join the JPA based on two daily round-trip routes.

That fee does not include the actual operations costs, which are significant. According to White, it costs $470,000 annually to operate three roundtrip buses between Fresno and Yosemite – with Madera County picking up $70,000 of that tab.

Guzman said the costs wouldn’t be that high if Fresno joins the JPA, which would allow the county (or city) to take advantage of transportation grants and fee reductions.

In previous years, according to Fresno Council of Governments interim executive director Robert Phipp, the YARTS route to Fresno operated at an annual six-figure deficit.

So, no, YARTS from Fresno hasn’t paid for itself. But with more marketing and outreach efforts, it doesn’t have to be a financial disaster.

Since writing about YARTS’ struggles last summer, I’ve been surprised by the number of emails and phone calls from both locals and out of towners to express their support for the Fresno route.

Now would be a great time for those folks to contact their city council members and county supervisors.

Remember, a YARTS ticket ($40 roundtrip fare from Fresno) is just as good as having a reservation. It also covers the park entrance fee ($35 for private vehicles) and eliminates the hassle to find parking.

With reservations required during peak visitation season and the price of gas still above $4 per gallon, I suspect many Fresno-area residents would consider riding the bus to Yosemite. Especially those who like doing things spur-of-the-moment and didn’t log on to recreation.gov on Friday morning to snap up most of the permits between April and October.

But unless county and city officials work out an agreement — and soon — YARTS from Fresno will be going away. Possibly for good.

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