INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. - Despite the East Shore Express getting off to a slow start in the first of two trial years, ridership numbers picked up by the end, having officials declare the shuttle an overall success.
The Incline Village shuttle bus, which traveled to and from Sand Harbor State Park, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in 20-minute intervals between June 15 and Labor Day, saw between zero and a 186 riders a day before the Fourth of July, which saw ridership jump to a summer high of 1,430, according to statistics from the Tahoe Transportation District.
Weekends, Fourth of July week and the three-day Labor Day weekend were the busiest, transporting hundreds of passengers daily to Lake Tahoe's busiest beach and boat launch area, where as weekdays saw traditionally low ridership, with numbers often in the double digits.
The total number of riders on the East Shore Express this year was 12,155, with its last weekend of operations, Labor Day weekend, seeing 81,593 and 301 passengers on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, respectively.
"For a pilot program, it was very successful," said Curtis Garner, transit manager for TTD. "We were happy with the ridership, the lessened congestion along the corridor (of Highway 28) and customer satisfaction scores were really good, so people who used it, liked it."
According to previous reports, the shuttle was created to ease congestion on Highway 28 and its shoulders around Sand Harbor, help Tahoe's clarity by reducing the number of idling cars on Highway 28 and the amount sediment run-off from vehicles parking on the highway's shoulders, and improve safety along the corridor, especially for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Jay Howard, park supervisor of Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, which includes Sand Harbor, said the shuttle has improved safety on Highway 28 "vastly."
Sand Harbor has 615 parking spots, said Howard, adding that creating additional parking in the park isn't an option due to Sand Harbor being "pretty much built out."
"So when we close on those busy days, there's usually still literally hundreds of people out there that still want to come in, so in the past - and this has been happening for the last several decades - people park out there on the highway and they walk in," he said.
That proved to be a safety hazard for both pedestrians and drivers.
"(It's) a narrow highway where people drive fast and there's curves and there's no sidewalks, and you have people - families and kids and moms pushing strollers and people pushing barbecues and lugging coolers - out there with this high level of traffic," he said.
Howard said Sand Harbor had wanted to issue a no walk-in policy for years, but didn't want turn people away since it's a public park.
"We felt there needed to be some alternative way for people to get in if we were going to take that more extreme step of not allowing walk-ins," he said.
Then came the East Shore Express.
For a fare of $3, and $1.50 for children, seniors and those disabled, locals and visitors could use the shuttle to enter Sand Harbor once it was full without having to pay the park's entrance fee.
Sand Harbor used to charge all walk-ins $1 for entry, which generated approximately $10,000 a year for the state park, Howard said.
"We thought it (the shuttle) was such a good idea that that we basically said the money paid to ride the bus can stay with them (the Tahoe Transportation District)," he said.
Garner said rider fees go toward covering shuttle operations, such as gas and vehicle maintenance, since the shuttle program received $200,000 in grant funding this past year.
The combination of the existence of the shuttle, the park not allowing walk-ins this summer, converting the park's exit lane into an entrance lane during busy entry times, and better signage indicating the existence of no-parking zone on both sides of the highway from Memorial Point and the Incline Village General Improvement District's pumping station, made Highway 28 a lot quieter this summer, according to Howard.
"It was kind of like a ghost town out there on the highway this summer," he said. "It was great."
The East Shore Express is a two-year pilot project that's part of a long-term revitalization plan that pledges to streamline traffic flow and enhance the environmental and recreational assets along Highway 28 between Incline and the U.S. Highway 50 intersection at Spooner Summit.
The shuttle will return next summer, perhaps with a few modifications, Garner said. Some ideas being considered include: starting service later in the summer instead of mid-June, since 15 of the 16 days of service didn't exceed double digits, or operating only on weekends.
"We're going to take what we've learned and collectively decide how we want to approach next year," Garner said.
To learn more about the East Shore Express, visit: tahoetransportation.org.