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Tahoe’s transit options confuse tourists

Greg Risling

Mike Faresh and his girlfriend, Katie, were visiting from San Diego recently and were aware of the weekend traffic in Lake Tahoe. They decided to ditch their car at their motel and rest their faith with the public transit system.

Unfortunately, riding on a STAGE bus wouldn’t take them to Tahoe City.

Tahoe’s glut of disjointed transit options has left tourists and residents alike perplexed, inquisitive and even stranded. People know where they want to go but getting there has its own set of obstacles.



The young couple confessed they didn’t do their homework. They were overwhelmed by the amount of shuttles, buses and trolleys that provide service to casinos or your doorstep. Acronyms and terse titles abound in Tahoe. DART, STAGE, TART, “the Lapper” and the “Nifty 50.” Mike and Katie might have found better odds at a craps table than selecting the correct bus line.

For its size and conditions, Tahoe has more than its share of public transit. In cities with similar population figures, South Lake Tahoe fares well in transit needs, said transportation consultant Gordon Shaw. Shaw works in Tahoe City for Leigh, Scott and Cleary and explores proposals and effective transit means across the country. However, when you compare the sum total of Tahoe’s parts to other resort towns in the United States, Tahoe falls behind the pack.



Aspen, Colo. has solved the riddle of tugging motorists away from their steering wheel. It is estimated that an astonishing 70 percent of Aspen’s residents don’t use a car every day.

In Park City, Utah, all of the business license fees, which are revenue and not regulatory-based, are funneled back into transit enabling free service to riders.

One of the challenging factors transit agencies deal with annually is garnering funds from the state and federal governments. Areas with a population under 50,000 can qualify for a portion of the appropriations pie and are not considered “urban.” The powers-that-be don’t account for seasonal peaks, when tourist influx boosts the population to 100,000 or more people, qualifying Tahoe for more cash.

“The big problem is there is money to buy equipment but there isn’t anything left to operate the system,” Shaw said.

Area Transit Management, which runs STAGE bus routes in South Lake Tahoe, has jumped at the financial pinch. Funding was reduced approximately $100,000 last year and resulted in the elimination of one of its neighborhood routes.

“Our system is designed for 25,000 to 30,000 people,” said ATM Manager Ken Daly. “We’re not designed to handle those enormous loads. We have found other ways to provide service.”

Trolleys have been a summertime savior in Tahoe. Ridership is spiraling upward each year-an expected 80,000 people this summer on the South Shore – and the attractiveness of the trolley makes it a tourist favorite. An open-air tram shuttling visitors to Emerald Bay has been successful as well.

Transit agencies have tried to keep an even keel to attract different riders. But Shaw said when tourists see the buses, they tend to opt for their automobile.

“For some reason, people think a bus is going to take you to a bad neighborhood,” he said. “That’s not the case up here.”

Two unique aspects can work for and against Tahoe’s favor: 1) Nevada’s casinos predicate around-the-clock activity launching some buses into nightly service and 2) North Shore communities are spread out causing longer lag time between stops while a more centralized community like South Lake Tahoe is conducive to a timely transit route.

“People not familiar with the bus system won’t ride because they aren’t informed,” said Dick Powers, executive director of the South Shore Transit Management Association. “They see blue buses, purple buses and they’re running around. They probably stick to their own automobile.”

Mike and Katie did exactly that and hiked a half-mile back to their motel. Armed with only a tourist guide and map, they didn’t want to waste their time waiting.

“We just want to get there,” said Mike. “I hate to use the car but hey, it’s quicker and I can make all the stops I want.”


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