TART: Have Riders, Need Drivers

With the busiest season for local transit upon Truckee/North Tahoe, buses are understaffed, and drivers overworked

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Editor’s Note, Jan. 9, 2023: Updated to reflect Palisades Tahoe parking reservations as having both paid and free-of-cost options. Visit palisadestahoe.com/mountain-information/parking-and-road-conditions/parking-program for more information.


Hopping on a bus without having to pay a fare is not a novel idea.

In the 1970s, U.S. demonstrations were briefly conducted, testing the waters of free fare. But since the Covid-19 pandemic especially, larger cities have ramped up programs. Kansas City, Missouri, became the first major U.S. metropolis in 2020 to offer free bus fare city-wide. Numerous others have followed suit.

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In mountain towns, however, it’s been a staple for over a decade, and one that Truckee/North Tahoe implemented four years ago.

Since 2019, Tahoe Area Regional Transit, or TART, has operated for free in Truckee and Placer County, and across the state line into Incline Village. Buses run from Incline to Tahoma to Truckee and anywhere in between. Smaller vans even come right up to someone’s door for pick-up, via TART Connect. Racks for skis, snowboards, and bicycles are available for all riders.

“We were collecting so little [fare] that it almost cost as much money to administer the accounting for it as we were actually collecting,” said Alfred Knotts, transportation program manager for the Town of Truckee, of the shift. “To remove that barrier for people, especially since we have one branded system, we wanted to make it interchangeable so people can get on and off buses without … change or [worrying about] somebody with skis in their family. We removed that barrier before Covid just to increase ridership and to make it more convenient for both visitors and residents.”

Fare-free transit makes a lot of sense in tourist-based regions like ours — especially as major area ski resorts have instigated paid parking systems to mitigate traffic on regional roadways. More riders on buses means less money out of skiers’ pockets, fewer cars on the road, less gas emissions, and even increased economic benefits for the community (grab a cuppa from your favorite café on the way to or from the bus stop).

That said, current TART operations are suffering from understaffing and, more worrisome, the bus drivers themselves say, poor management.

“We tend to average about a 54% to 57% vacancy right now,” said Jaime Wright regarding the TART bus drivers. Wright is the public works manager for transit services in Placer County. Of the 18 drivers, she told Moonshine Ink, 74% live in Reno and Sparks.

Between Covid-19 pushing many of the younger bus drivers to move back home, the local housing crisis, and living adjacent to Nevada, which doesn’t collect income tax (“for entry-level-type positions,” Wright said, “those dollars can mean a lot”), the challenges are many.

“There are very economically driven challenges that have resulted in a lot less opportunity for drivers in that area,” she said. “Just to kind of give you a comparison: Down here on the western side of the county … I’ve had 55 applicants for our bus driver position. Where at TART I’ve had maybe 13 in the last six months.

Shirley Marshall, who worked as a TART bus driver for 28 years and retired five months ago, said the lack of drivers goes deeper than challenging economics.

There’s no incentive for [drivers] to stay.”

~ Shirley Marshall, TART bus driver for 28 years, now retired

“The current management styles and toxic working environment that exists under Jamie Wright and Erin Johnson are the main reasons I retired earlier than I had hoped,” she said. “And many of the other former employees that I keep in contact with have told me that they left for same reasons.”

Wright said such frustration hasn’t been mentioned during driver exit interviews.

Trimming inconveniences

Transit in the Truckee/Tahoe region is uniquely challenging for myriad reasons.

First, there’s the balloon in tourism demand versus funding given for residential numbers.

“We experience urban demands, but our funding from the federal and the state government is set at a rural level, so we get very, very little dollars from the states and the feds because it’s based on our population,” Knotts said. “Our population reflects 16,000 people, so that’s the money we get when we’re really dealing with a hundred thousand people on any given weekend.”

In Placer County, ridership has increased significantly since the shift to free fares and addition of TART Connect — by 62% when compared with pre-Covid numbers. In Truckee, it’s 250%.

“In terms of ridership, 80% of that ridership was attributed to TART Connect,” Knotts said. “What we’re really seeing is that a big percentage of people that are using it are choosing to use that instead of their car, too. So, we’re also reducing the vehicle trips and getting essentially about 450 passengers per day when we typically were carrying about 80 passengers.”

While the popularity is clear, funding remains a challenge in the town. “The TART Connect system, the little vans that roll around and then we have the app for that, has the potential to go away after [June 30, 2024] if we don’t find a sustainable funding source,” Knotts explained.

Currently, Truckee’s TART Connect is funded by a combination of sources from the town’s general fund (including Transient Occupancy Tax and Truckee Tourism Business Improvement District funds). “While we have been successful and grateful for the recent allocation of these funds,” Knotts said, “they are not dedicated to funding TART Connect or transit and would, depending on future council and [Visit Truckee Tahoe] board action, have to be allocated every year by vote, which creates instability and uncertainty for the future of the program absent a dedicated funding source.”

We experience urban demands, but our funding from the federal and the state government is set at a rural level, so we get very, very little dollars from the states and the feds because it’s based on our population.”

~ Alfred Knotts, Town of Truckee
transportation program manager

After June 2024, other revenue generation opportunities must satisfy the need. Town staff will present to council in early 2024 information on a funding strategy to continue TART Connect, as well as the potential to re-establish a road tax to fill the funding gap.

Placer meanwhile extended on Nov. 28 zero fees on TART buses for an additional two years through resort and local agency contributions and Transient Occupancy Tax funding. “Beyond that,” Wright said, “we’re hoping to make it permanent.”

The two jurisdictions trade struggles, though, when it comes to staffing.

Microtransit options in Truckee are fully staffed, Knotts said. “A lot of that has to do with the fact that [Placer’s TART bus drivers are] operating those full-size buses, so that requires a commercial driver’s license, a CDL,” he said. TART Connect, Truckee Local, and Dial-A-Ride vans don’t call for such a license. “It increases the pool of who we can hire. They still go through all the same rigorous trainings and customer service and safety trainings, but they don’t have to have that CDL license.”

Changes to Placer County’s TART scheduling system have taken place in recent years: Rather than a system where the shifts with the most consistent start times go to the employees who’ve been there the longest, all shifts now consist of sporadic start times. One driver might start at 4:30 a.m. one morning, and the next day at 2 in the afternoon.

Marshall recognizes these changes are meant to appease new hires coming on, but says the process removed the largest benefit for long-time drivers: consistent daily preferred shifts.

“They have removed the grouping of same shift options,” she said. “A practice that had been in place for the previous 20-plus years. Shifts that consisted of the same start time, same route times and sections of same driving areas, same lunch time and location, same end time daily with the same days off. A good portion of the core route/shift options grouped together created a highly desired option for the most senior drivers to bid on.

“The rest of the bids were compiled of whatever route times were left to complete route coverage. This is what was left for the newest drivers to cover. You worked your way up to the better shift options. Now the bids consist of completely scrambled routes, different everything every day for every driver.”

Seniority still applies when bidding for schedules, but what’s being bid on has changed, she added — “there’s no incentive for people to stay.”

Wright explained that to meet the community’s transit needs, the county implemented nine- and 10-shifts with alternative 9/80 schedules (as opposed to the common 40-hour-week schedule, this system is a two-week schedule that divides 80 working hours across nine days) to meet peak demands. Five of the 17 shifts in Placer are split shifts, with the splits ranging between 2 and 3 hours long.

“Our management team does perform exit interviews which provide a lot of insight related to an employee’s decision to seek other opportunities,” Wright countered in a later email. “A majority of those choosing to find another alternative say it is directly related to the cost of living locally, the cost of commuting, or the challenges of the environment (e.g., weather, bus chains, etc.).”

Beyond schedules, said another former TART driver, R. Newton, was a lack of “brotherhood” among the transit crew. He told Moonshine that he saw many drivers be hired by the county, work six months, and then leave because of a corporate culture that didn’t care about its drivers.

“When [former county transit manager Frank Silva] retired [in 2018], they brought in some new management people,” Newton said. “And these new management people, instead of doing things the brotherly way … they wanted to instill the corporate way.”

The union also stopped fighting for the bus drivers around the time of this transition, he added. “I think that’s where the breakdown started,” he said, referencing new county management and union representatives, and the loss of connection between drivers. “That’s what pretty much drove the service into the ground.”

IT’S A COMMITMENT: Those hired as TART bus drivers for Placer County must acquire a commercial driver’s license, which includes training to operate a public transportation bus. That process, as well as training, means two to three months before a new hire can get behind the wheel.

Another hard winter?

Wintertime is when TART operates at its highest capacity. Knotts with the town explained: “You’re really dealing with one trip purpose, and that’s going to the resorts. In the summer, you have people doing all different kinds of things, whether it’s going to the beach or going to the river or going fishing or mountain biking. There’s a bunch of different activities people do in the summer, so it’s harder to meet those needs because they’re just doing different things. In the winter is when everybody’s doing one thing.”

In addition to the drought of TART bus drivers during the busiest time of the year, riders are frustrated. This past March, the Ink reported on poor living, working, and transit conditions for J-1 workers. Of note were experiences shared of waiting for buses that were too full to stop, resulting in J-1s walking to their jobs instead.

“Last year was extremely difficult with weather conditions,” Marshall said. “Then you put on top, staffing. We could not provide dependable transportation last winter.”

During a regular winter, drivers might chain their buses every couple of weeks. This past winter resulted in daily chaining. “People were just tired, I would say, and ready for it not to be winter anymore,” Wright said. “And then winter just seemed to have hung itself all the way through June. I think you kind of get burnt out. Winter is our toughest by far.”

She said she knows there’s a need for a higher frequency of buses and routes, but with staff shortages, the desire cannot be accommodated.

Another former TART bus driver spoke about passengers being openly annoyed by the reduced services, and his own attempted explanations that never felt satisfying. “We used to have service until midnight. After that, we dwindled down to 6 o’clock. You can imagine what the passengers were saying every time they got on your bus,” he said, preferring to remain anonymous because of potential job ramifications.

This retired driver said multiple coworkers of his quit because of riders giving them a hard time. Still in touch with current drivers, he said the same concerns still exist: “It’s really bad. Mostly, it’s about lack of drivers. They’re stuck with it, and I feel sorry for them, but what can you do?”

CONNECT: TART Connect vehicles provide door-to-door service for free. Riders can use the app to schedule pickups. “Microtransit really is a good model because it allows you to adjust schedules and times and vehicles day by day,” explained Alfred Knotts, Town of Truckee transportation program manager. “In terms of a fixed route schedule, those are set in stone for six months and you don’t typically change those.”

This winter, Placer County is adjusting its TART schedule to minimize riders left waiting in the cold. The large fixed-route buses will be pulled off roads around 7 p.m. and TART Connect will take on night service requests. “At that point we do open the zones, which makes it much easier for those that are looking to travel between Placer zones,” Wright said. “So, if you are working in Olympic Valley and you need to get over to Crystal Bay, you now at night can take one van all the way across.”

Palisades Tahoe announced the requirement of parking reservations this past June in an effort to reduce congestion on roadways. Of the bus driver shortage, PR Manager Patrick Lacey wrote in an email, “We are pleased with the county’s efforts to deliver service across the community this winter. Recognizing there may be shortcomings, especially along the north and west shores, we are working closely with them to have contingencies in place. We will once again offer park and ride for World Cup and are exploring expanding the service to additional busy weekends and holidays throughout the season.”

Northstar California also launched a new parking reservation system for this winter.

Those interested in working as a TART bus driver can visit the Placer County Employment Opportunities web page, jobapscloud.com/placer. Employees working in Tahoe receive a monthly $1,000 subsidy, regardless of how far they commute.

To view TART schedules and routes, visit tahoetruckeetransit.com.


Too Convenient?

If transit is free around Truckee/North Tahoe, what about youth being able to utilize the buses and vans? If a 13-year-old can hop on a bus and ride from Truckee all the way to Tahoma, is that an issue?

“[For] middle school kids, that’s been a really, really good mechanism when they get out of school to get over to their rec center, so people’s parents don’t have to leave work for 15 minutes and make this trip,” said Alfred Knotts, Town of Truckee transportation program manager. “High school and middle school-aged kids have really been using it to give them freedom around town.”

Amber Burke, coordinator of district communications and parent engagement for the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, said administrative staff has not heard complaints from parents or teachers about the TART system being too convenient.

Author

  • Alex Hoeft

    Alex Hoeft joined Moonshine staff in May 2019, happy to return to the world of journalism after a few years in community outreach. She has both her bachelor's and Master's in journalism, from Brigham Young University and University of Nevada, Reno, respectively. When she's not journalism-ing, she's wrangling her toddler or reading a book — or doing both at the same time.

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