Future uncertain for Apple Hill shuttle
Looking back on the Apple Hill shuttle pilot program tested in October, El Dorado County transportation director Rafael Martinez remains adamant that the program was a success. But between opposition from some growers and a lack of funding, it could be in trouble for the 2019 season.
At the Dec. 18 county Board of Supervisors meeting, Martinez presented a recap of the shuttle program as a whole, after it ran for four peak-season weekends in October. According to Martinez, the program saw more than 11,000 passengers over the four weekends and the parking lot was full each day the shuttles ran. In total, including additional shuttles and California Highway Patrol officers deemed necessary, the project cost $337,679.
The county’s main objective was to clear the roads for emergency vehicle access and Martinez asserted the county met this goal, illustrating his point with data: There were four emergency incidents during the pilot program, of which the longest response time was six minutes. With delays when the shuttle program is not in place, incident response has taken 30 minutes or longer, Martinez said.
He also highlighted the program’s dynamic nature, explaining how adjustments were made on the fly, based on where and when traffic was piling up. The program began its first weekend with hard closures on westbound Carson Road, he said, but eventually moved toward a flexible system, keeping things open when traffic was freely flowing and closing roads during backups. Martinez said they also repositioned some CHP officers when certain areas were overestimated or underestimated for patrol.
Though Martinez focused on the program’s positive aspects, he acknowledged it got some negative feedback, including 30 negative phone calls to his office. He noted these reviews came from out-of-area visitors, versus residents.
Between Martinez, District 3 Supervisor Brian Veerkamp and the Department of Transportation, 20 positive correspondences came in, all from residents. A survey sent to riders during the project’s final weekend received 16 responses, all positive and rating the experience at least a nine out of ten.
As for the negative comments, Martinez said they were part of the process.
“We did … receive many objections and contrary, negative reviews to our pilot project, but that was to be expected,” he said. “We always knew with a pilot project we were going to have bumps in the road.”
One speaker at the meeting, Pollock Pines resident Fran DuChamp, approached the issue from an Apple Hill employee perspective, having worked at High Hill Ranch when she was younger. With this year’s program in place, she said, crafters in Apple Hill didn’t make as much money as usual.
She also noted that when visitors come to Apple Hill, they often like to stock up on boxes of apples and other goods. Given the sheer weight of things like produce or jugs of cider, if a visitor can’t carry their purchases, they won’t use the shuttle, DuChamp said.
District 5 Supervisor Sue Novasel also pointed out what is perhaps the program’s largest hindrance at this point: lack of sustainable funding. This year’s program was partially funded by grants but at this time, Martinez said, they know of no similar financial opportunities.
Looking ahead, Martinez plans to meet with Apple Hill growers and other stakeholders to discuss the program’s future. Among other things, the meeting will touch on who is responsible for ensuring emergency access during peak apple season, whether it’s Caltrans, the county or the growers.
Though growers have been vocal about not supporting a shuttle program next year, Martinez hoped the pilot program would lay a foundation Apple Hill businesses could model and run with.
But now, Martinez is wondering what the alternatives are.
“Closing off the road? Business as usual?” he said. “That model has been proven now for several years that it is not sustainable and won’t work.”
One member of the public, Placerville resident Erin Young, brought up the idea of having visitors pay for parking at Apple Hill to generate revenue, and then keeping transit as an option for last-minute visitors.
But Martinez said earlier in the meeting he hopes to get past the “car-is-king mindset.”
The county will meet with Apple Hill growers on Monday, Jan. 14 at the county campus to discuss where the program is headed, Martinez said in an email.