An experiment to see if one can get all the way around Lake Tahoe using public transportation yielded several insights, including: You might be better off riding your bike.
The adventure began the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 22, as I sat at a BlueGo bus stop with my Tribune newsroom colleague, Jonah Kessel.
We noticed a woman heading west down Lake Tahoe Boulevard on a bicycle. We thought nothing of it until we saw her again as we approached Emerald Bay on the Nifty 50 Trolley, and then again just past Tahoma as we sat on the free Emerald Bay Shuttle.
We began our journey at a BlueGo stop in front of Applebee's across from Heavenly Village. Our plan: To take a BlueGo to Camp Richardson, where we could jump on a trolley to Emerald Bay, then take the free shuttle to Tahoe City where we would hop on the Tahoe Area Regional Transit (TART) bus to Incline Village, and eventually end up back where we started.
We arrived at the BlueGo stop at 10:32 a.m. We must have been a little too late, because we waited for an hour before we were picked up -- by the Nifty 50 Trolley, not BlueGo.
BlueGo is operated by Area Transit Management and receives funding from the city of South Lake Tahoe and El Dorado County. BlueGo runs five bus routes on the South Shore, as well as the Nifty 50 and casino shuttle service.
The Nifty 50 runs from Stateline's casinos to D.L. Bliss State Park. The rides are narrated by the drivers while they shuttle riders who've paid $3 to ride all day. A one-way fare is $1.75.
Most of the riders this day were tourists. Gail and Michael McFadden -- on vacation from Philadelphia -- rode the trolley. They have been visiting the South Shore for years and always take the trolley, they said.
"We learned our lesson with BlueGo," Gail said, recounting her frustration the last time she and Michael took the BluGo and were stranded for an hour.
The first trolley took us to Camp Richardson, where we got off and boarded another trolley to Emerald Bay. We worried a bit about safety on our way to Emerald Bay, as the trolley carried as many as 59 people, many standing. The driver, Diana Peticolas, quickly laid our worries to rest.
"Safety, safety, safety. That's my No. 1," Peticolas said.
She's driven the bus a long time. How long?
"Long enough," Peticolas offered.
We rode the trolley as far as it went, jumping off at D.L. Bliss State Park where we waited for the Emerald Bay free shuttle. The 45-minute wait at D.L. Bliss allowed us to chat with Eligio Vella, visiting Lake Tahoe with his family from Weaverville. Vella just recently moved back to California after living in Europe for many years.
We discussed public transportation, and Vella told us about the ubiquity of public transportation throughout most of Europe.
"I used to walk out my door and have the public transportation right there," Vella said.
Eventually, the shuttle was right there, too, and we climbed aboard the bus. It offered a cool retreat from the hot sun and had just four other passengers. Heather Sheridan and Cindi Schenone of Tahoe City were headed back home with their daughters after a day of hiking. The two enjoyed riding to Emerald Bay for free.
"This is our first time," Sheridan said.
The Emerald Bay free shuttle has been running for two years and has expanded its operation this year, said Jan Colyer, executive director of the Truckee/North Tahoe Transportation Management Association. Colyer started the shuttle for recreational services through a grant from the U.S. Forest Service.
"We wanted to bridge the gap between the North and South Shores," Colyer said.
The shuttle runs between Tahoe City and Eagle Falls Trail at Emerald Bay from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
In Tahoe City, we waited to get on the bus and had hoped we could talk to the woman we had seen several times riding her bike. After waiting for about 30 minutes, we had no luck.
We grabbed a sandwich and waited for the TART bus to pick us up and deliver us to Incline. TART is operated by the Placer County Department of Public Works and funded by Placer County, the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission and the Town of Truckee.
Our bus seemed to be occupied mainly by locals. Will Garner, public works manager for the Placer County Department of Public Works, confirmed the local focus of TART.
"(TART) is really geared toward people getting to and from work," Garner said.
Phil Merriam, who drove our bus to Incline, noted: "We get some tourists once in a while, but not very often." Merriam has been driving for TART since 1977 and will retire in November.
Many people at the North Shore use TART to get to work and run errands, said frequent rider Bruce Taylor of Kings Beach.
"I'd say that 60 percent of the people up here rely on (TART), if not more," Taylor said.
Merriam expressed surprise at our mission to get around the lake on public transportation.
"People are going to the South Shore, I tell them it's going to be a two-day trip," Merriam said.
Merriam dropped us off at Highway 28 in Incline, the end of the road for public transportation in Lake Tahoe. The only way to return to the South Shore on a bus, shuttle or trolley would be to turn around and come back the way we came, a 51Ú2-hour trip.
TART plans to increase stops around the ski resorts in the winter, but has no plans to bridge the gap between Incline and Zephyr Cove, Garner said. The main problem is ridership, Garner added. He explained that the money that could be spent to extend TART's routes to Zephyr Cove could be better spent in areas where TART ridership is stronger.
"That's an area that no one jurisdiction can pick up," Garner said, adding that that stretch of road is outside Placer County and outside the area that Washoe County contracts TART to run.
With no public transportation available, we relied on automobiles to get us around the East Shore and back to Stateline. By the end of the day, it had taken us eight hours and $3.25 each to get all the way around the lake and back to Stateline.
It was an interesting experiment, but not entirely practical.
Waits for BlueGo and Nifty 50 can be an hour or more, depending on your timing. In our case, our timing was apparently bad, as well as our choice of stops. The Nifty 50 Trolley is scheduled to stop there once an hour at about 15 minutes past the hour, and we had apparently just missed it.
BlueGo buses also run in the Stateline area. But most of them don't stop in front of Applebee's, instead veering off onto Pioneer Trail.
But all of this was not obvious to someone who had not done a lot of advance research.
Andrew Morris, president and CEO of BlueGo operator ATM, said we must have missed the Nifty 50 Trolley by a matter of minutes.
"That's an anomaly," Morris said. "We try to stick to our timepoints in the schedules."
And in terms of expanding service, Morris said that is dependent on funding and the direction BlueGo gets from its partners, such as the city of South Lake Tahoe.
But the bottom line is that without transportation bridging the gap between Incline Village and Zephyr Cove, getting around the East Shore using public transportation is impossible.
Our friendly bicycle rider may have circled the lake faster than we did.
10:19 a.m. - Left the casino corridor
10:32 a.m. - Arrived at the BlueGo stop outside Applebee's near Stateline
11:31 a.m. - Picked up by Nifty 50
11:53 a.m. - Switched trolleys at Camp Richardson
12:05 p.m. - Took off from Camp Richardson
12:30 p.m. - Dropped off at D.L. Bliss State Park
1:17 p.m. - Picked up by Emerald Bay Free Shuttle
2:02 p.m. - Dropped off in Tahoe City
3:10 p.m. - Picked up by TART bus in Tahoe City
3:54 p.m. - Dropped off in Incline Village
4:15 p.m. - Arrived at junction of Highway 28 and Highway 50
5:30 p.m. - Reached Glenbrook
5:46 p.m. - Picked up by a friend
6:10 p.m. - Arrived back at Stateline
By the numbers:
Hours to get around the lake: 8
Time spent waiting at bus/shuttle/trolley stops: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Time spent riding buses/shuttles/trolleys: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Hummers seen: 11
Amount of money spent on buses/shuttles/trolleys: $3.25
Most people on a vehicle at once: 59 on Nifty 50
Least number of people on a vehicle at once: Two on Emerald Bay Free Shuttle
For information regarding schedules and fares:
BlueGo and the Nifty 50 Trolley
www.bluego.org, (530) 541-7149
Emerald Bay free shuttle
www.placer.ca.gov/Departments/Works/Transit/TART.aspx, (530) 550-1212