El Dorado County supervisors allocate another $70K for Apple Hill shuttle program
For its final weekend, the shuttle pilot program in Apple Hill has been saved by the bell.
At a Board of Supervisors special meeting Thursday at 9 a.m., county supervisors voted 4-0 to allocate an additional $70,000 to the shuttle program in order to keep it running for its fourth and final weekend. District 5 Supervisor Sue Novasel was absent.
Though the additional money put the project over-budget, the other option presented by county transportation director Rafael Martinez would have been to hold on to the extra money and not run the shuttles this Saturday and Sunday. In this case, the project would have remained within its initial budget.
The allocation comes from the county’s economic development fund and is a not-to-exceed figure, meaning the program will only take what portion of the $70,000 it absolutely needs.
Project funds have already increased from initial estimates. When Martinez pitched the shuttle program to supervisors in June, he estimated traffic enforcement to cost $50,000 and transportation components to run $75,000. By the time supervisors officially approved the project in August, costs for traffic enforcement had risen above $200,000.
According to Martinez, $50,000 of the new allocation is to fund four extra shuttles that were added to the project to accommodate an unanticipated influx of riders. Up to $20,000 of the remaining funds will go to cover additional California Highway Patrol officers, flagmen, signage and portable restrooms.
Martinez said his team had planned on 200 to 300 cars on each weekend during the project, which was set to run on weekends throughout October, Apple Hill’s peak season. In reality, Martinez said about 400 cars have shown up each weekend.
So far, the project has taught Martinez and the county’s collaborators — the El Dorado County Transit Authority, the El Dorado County Transportation Commission, CHP, Caltrans and the Apple Hill Growers Association — something different each weekend, Martinez said. Ultimately he made his case in continuing the program for two more days, despite questioning from District 2 Supervisor Shiva Frentzen as to whether the county needed the additional data to find a solution for apple season’s traffic congestion.
Frentzen also asked for a monetary breakdown of how the program’s various aspects are funded. Martinez said a CHP officer for traffic enforcement, including his or her vehicle, costs $1,500 per day. Flagmen, depending on their seniority, can cost $120 to $200 per hour.
Despite the unanticipated extra costs, Martinez expressed some concern over possibly losing grant funding if the program were to end one weekend early. A grant from the county Air Quality Management District has partially funded the project.
Who will pay for the shuttle program next year, should it continue, remains to be seen. Martinez and representatives of other involved agencies intend to meet with Apple Hill farmers after the project has been completed to talk about growers potentially funding the buses, and all that come with them, next year.
District 1 Supervisor John Hidahl also brought up the possibility of asking shuttle riders to pay for their rides, estimating a per-person cost of about $28 per day, given the numbers available Thursday. Hidahl expressed some skepticism as to whether riders would be willing to pay that much for the service they receive.
Martinez said a discussion of the shuttle program’s future will happen at a later date.
Though the program did receive some negative feedback from users in long lines and growers in Apple Hill who felt their farms were made less accessible, Martinez stood by the shuttle operations and said positive feedback came in too.
Hundreds of cars were taken off the road each day, he said, adding that the parking lot was consistently full.
“And those are just secondary goals,” Martinez said. “The primary goal of emergency vehicle access was met.”
So far during the program, four emergency calls have been made to the Apple Hill region, Martinez said. Of the four emergency responses, the longest delay faced was six minutes.
Though it’s brought obstacles such as long lines and a parking lot so full people have been turned away, Martinez said pilot programs are supposed to involve a bit of challenge, a point District 4 Supervisor Michael Ranalli echoed before the vote.
If there was an easy solution to Apple Hill’s traffic congestion, Caltrans and the growers’ association would have figured it out years ago, Martinez said.
With a motion made by District 3 Supervisor Brian Veerkamp and approved by all others present, Martinez, Caltrans, CHP and other project participants will have one more weekend to iron out the wrinkles.