Woodlake opts for minivan, holds off on bus for in-city riders

Tulare County Regional Transit Authority swaps Woodlake bus for minivan; perhaps for good

WOODLAKE – Riders on Woodlake’s public transit have noticed a difference in the wheels their riding on since the city went from a miniature bus to a minivan. Wait times have ticked up as well, but according to the city, only slightly.

Woodlake made some changes around their in-house transit system when they joined the Tulare County Regional Transit Authority (TCRTA) last year. All cities except for Visalia have signed on to make the switch from individualized transportation department to the one TCRTA. It was established last summer as a way for local transit agencies to realize economies of scale through consolidation.

As of July 1, of this year Woodlake along with other cities began the work of transferring their services to TCRTA, according to TCRTA director Richard Tree. Once the transition is complete, buses with a new TCRTA logo will be pulling up to stops in every city and unincorporated community in the county. DART (Dinuba Area Rapid Transit), TIME (Tulare InterModel Express), Porterville Transit and Woodlake City Transit buses will all become TCRTA buses, have uniform fares, more efficient routes and residents will be able to travel between cities easier. Farmersville and Exeter are currently served by Visalia Transit but will eventually be served by new TCRTA routes.

But in the meantime, according to Tree, Porterville is providing maintenance and insurance to Woodlake’s bus and lent the city their surplus minivans. In addition TCRTA is handling the city’s transportation dispatch services.

“So, what Tulare County regional transit agency had to do was, figure out what member agency we could contract with to continue the Woodlake service without any disruptions,” Tree said. “And Porterville for the time being had vehicles available, had capacity and their maintenance facility to maintain the vehicles and so that’s why Porterville through TCRTA is operating the Woodlake service.”

Riders have scoffed at the change from the 14-16 bus capacity to the smaller minivan capacity. They have also found it inconvenient to go through a dispatch service instead of calling the driver directly, like they had before. But wait times have been negligible according to city manager Ramon Lara.

“Have I gotten a complaint where they say, ‘hey, Helen used to be able to get here three minutes, because I would call her cell phone. And now I have to go to dispatch and now it takes five minutes?’ Yeah, I’ve gotten those calls,” Lara said.

He added that the on-demand dial-a-ride days where residents would get picked up are likely over. Instead, residents will have to go through a dispatch service, or schedule to be picked up online. For the city, Lara said that it makes more sense to have the vans than the bus.

Lara said the bus was not typically filled to capacity. Most times there would be two or three passengers on board at any given time. Because riders are not typically going to same place the city’s driver ends up taking people to individual locations like a clinic or Rite-Aid. Making so many cross town, although short, trips was a burden on their aging bus.

“If you’re just taking one or two people at a time, assuming they may have a child or something with them. Why have the luxury vehicle that’s more expensive, that’s more maintenance intensive, that’s more fuel intensive,” Lara said. “Why go through all that trouble if you don’t need the vehicle?”

He added that the minivans lent by Porterville are Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant, and Woodlake driver, Helen, found that it is more user friendly.

“Helen says it’s a lot easier to load passengers in and out, to roll over, it’s easier to maneuver a van compared to a bus,” Lara said.

While riders might not like the change, the vans might be here to stay. Lara said that the cost of holding onto the bus has been tenuous in the recent past.

“At the end of day, this is about efficiency and being responsible. You know, our transit system is only recovering 10% of our costs. That isn’t feasible long term. And, that’s why, we’re going to something more efficient,” Lara said.

This is not necessarily a new problem for Tulare County’s smaller towns. In 2017 the city of Exeter abandoned their Dial-A-Ride service because of cost. By the summer of that year the city council moved to contract with Visalia’s Dial-A-Ride service. Regular riders who were paying $1 per ride were asked to pay $2.25. In turn they shouted at the city council in 2017.

“I don’t know if you realize how important this is to us…$2.25 is an astronomical amount,” Exeter senior Ruby Clinton exclaimed. “How much more are you going to keep cutting from these seniors? I want to know!”

“I can’t understand how we got into such dire straits with our Dial-A-Ride,” said regular rider Norma Glaze. “Couldn’t you maybe increase the taxes one percent and have it go to Dial-A-Ride?”

Just like Woodlake, albeit before TCRTA, fares were not covering costs and supplemental funds were waning.

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