MODESTO — Consider this:
From the comfort of my home, I can buy a three-month Eurail pass that can take me to 23 countries. Or I can get a 60-day European Buspass that's good for unlimited travel.
In Modesto, I must go in person to buy a monthly Modesto Area Express bus pass or send in my money by mail. No online service. And the pass is good for only one calendar month no three-month passes, or even a pass good for 30 days regardless of the date you purchase it. And I can't buy the next month's pass until after the 16th of the current month.
MAX does offer a 50-ticket packet for $55. Those tickets don't expire. But if you ride the bus most days, it's more economical to buy the $41 monthly pass.
I bought a monthly pass and a 50-ticket deal. I used cash, only to be told I couldn't buy the tickets after all, even though I paid with the exact amount of money. Why? I used a $50 bill, something the clerk and supervisor at the downtown bus terminal said they couldn't accept.
They would accept a personal check isn't that more risky than cash? Or they would accept a credit card, which usually carries a 3 percent fee for the business. Why not take my money, legal tender of the United States?
They will now, thanks to a call I made to Fred Cavanah, Modesto's transit manager who oversees the Amtrak station, MAX buses, the downtown transportation center, taxicab regulations and dial-a-ride.
"This is the first I ever heard that they didn't take $50 bills," he said. "That's pretty surprising, isn't it?"
It all came about, he said later, because of a miscommunication.
"There was some counterfeit money floating around a few months ago, so we told our contractor to be careful of accepting $50s and $100s, and apparently they came to the conclusion that they shouldn't accept anything over a $20. We weren't aware of that."
The next day, I tried again. My $50 was good that time.
But why not sell tickets good for three months, or at least longer than the calendar month?
"It would cause confusion if there's multiple passes out in the public," Cavanah said. "Most of the people who ride the bus don't have an interest in a pass more than one month at a time. They don't know if they're going to need to ride the bus next month."
Why not sell them online?
"It's not something that a person could print off a computer," Cavanah explained. They're essentially handled by us as if they are cash because they are essentially cash, so they have security devices printed on them. You couldn't print them like a coupon for a grocery store."
Well, San Francisco and New York allow folks to buy tickets online, for a one-day, five-day or 30-day pass. Those "tickets" are loaded onto a smart card device, which people then use for buses or subways.
That kind of technology is expensive to install, Cavanah said. He doesn't even have funds to install a device to give bus riders change. They must have the exact amount $1.25 for a one-way ticket or lose their change.
"It's not like the old days where the bus drivers used their nickel squirters," Cavanah said. "The money goes down into the vault in the fare box, so no one has any access to the money. There are devices that can issue you change in a card form, but we don't have the money to install them."
MAX has 55 buses, and those change devices would cost $16,000 each.
On the other hand, Cavanah added, "We're one of the few transit systems that haven't had to reduce our service or increase our fares since 2008. We're pretty proud of that. We're just scraping by as best we can. We haven't had too many extra amenities."
In a typical month, MAX buses carry about 300,000 passengers. I asked Cavanah to share some of the good things about the MAX system.
"There are lots of positives," he said. "Buses provide an absolutely important transportation source for people who otherwise can't get from point A to point B. A lot of people are senior citizens who don't have driver's licenses. A lot of people have disabilities who don't have other transportation choices.
"We're always looking for 'choice riders' who would choose to ride the bus instead of being the only person inside a car, which is the biggest polluter on the street. There are a lot of environmental benefits from riding the bus in addition to the economic benefits."
He knows MAX buses lack the user-friendly aspects and convenience found in Europe and larger U.S. cities.
"We constantly are trying to work to make things better within the bounds that we have. We love to do things to make our bus riders happy. We'd like to do more, but we just don't have the resources."
Next week: Car repair nightmare.
Send questions to Sue Nowicki at email@example.com, fax to (209) 578-2207 or mail to P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352. Include your name and contact information.