Shutdown forces Yosemite transit system cuts

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comOctober 14, 2013 

— The federal government shutdown has forced Merced County’s only public transit system to Yosemite National Park to eliminate half its trips to the world-famous attraction, transit officials said Monday.

The Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System experienced a 58 percent drop in ridership for the first week of October, according to YARTS Transit Manager Dick Whittington. Since 2000, YARTS has provided year-round service into Yosemite National Park, which has now been closed for two weeks because of the government closure.

As a result of the drop in ridership, Whittington said, the number of buses heading to Yosemite National Park this time of year has been cut in half – from six buses to three.

“We just had to scale our schedule back pretty severely to still be able to take care of the non-tourist audience and still stay within our budget,” Whittington said, adding that YARTS runs six buses in the winter and eight buses in the summer. “We’re still getting our other riders, but the tourists aren’t here.”

Although the YARTS buses transport hundreds of people to and from gateway communities such as Mariposa County for work, school and entertainment, the vast majority of riders are tourists visiting the park.

“Between 60 and 65 percent of our ridership is tourism,” Whittington said. “We truly are a public transit system, but our biggest customer group would be tourism.”

As the government shutdown enters its third week, tourists from all over the world have been forced to cancel trips to Yosemite. The daily loss in revenue to the region is estimated to be $500,000 for local businesses, according to Kathy McCorry, chief operating officer of the Mariposa County Chamber of Commerce.

Curtis Riggs, president and chief executive officer of Via Adventures Inc. in Merced, said reducing the number of YARTS buses on the road also affects local vendors, such as tire, maintenance and fuel suppliers.

Via Adventures provides bus drivers for YARTS, Riggs said. The number of drivers has scaled back from six full-time employees to three partial-shift drivers.

“We do try to move people around so rather than being out of work completely, they are able to pick up hours somewhere else,” Riggs said, adding that there have been no layoffs of drivers. “To some extent, we’re able to give them some work with the charter business, but even that has diminished.”

Whittington said 75 percent of YARTS operating costs are covered by federal funding sources, so if the shutdown continues it could have long-term impacts to the system.

“If those start to be affected, there can be a negative effect on YARTS,” Whittington said. “We’re watching, waiting and hoping, that’s for sure.”

It’s unclear how much money the YARTS system has lost since the government closure began Oct. 1, Whittington said, but ridership revenue covers only about 25 percent of total operating costs.

Lori Flanders, spokeswoman of the Merced County Association of Governments, which oversees the management, bookkeeping and grant writing for YARTS, said a reduced service schedule is posted on the YARTS website until further notice.

“Once the park is reopened, we will take down the temporary schedule and use the regular system,” Flanders said. “We understand the frustration that people have with the lack of service going into the park, but we encourage them to hang in there and check back on our website.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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