Most cities on board with regional bus plan

Visalia is only city to vote against consolidating transit services; Porterville is final piece to creating new countywide transit agency

TULARE COUNTY – Getting around on the public transit system in Tulare County can seem like a never-ending go-round of “Wheels on the Bus.” Fares, discounts, technology, hours of operation and scheduling all differ from one city to the next and the unincorporated spaces in between. In the last two years alone, the six transit agencies have been unable to agree on what age someone qualifies for a senior rate, which technology to use for tracking and reporting ridership and the cost of a round-trip pass to go from Lindsay to Visalia.

The solution to those issues found traction last month when a host of public agencies got on board with a plan to consolidate transit agencies across the county and form the Tulare County Regional Transit Agency. The plan was drafted by the Tulare County Association of Governments, the agency that oversees transportation funding in the county, as a joint powers agreement (JPA) between the transit agencies in the county.

Supervisor Eddie Valero, who represents northern Tulare County’s District Four, said he had spoken to a female student from Orosi High School was had a medical internship in Fresno. He said public transportation took the student 2.5 hours to get from Orosi to Visalia and then take the V-Line from Visalia to Fresno, for a total travel time of 5 hours per day.

“We need to reimagine what a transit system will look like regionally,” Valero said. “I want other individuals like this student to be able to have ridership opportunity as some of our youth lack transportation.”

Ross Miller, chief engineer with the County’s Resource Management Agency, said the regional transit agency would provide many positive benefits on ridership, such as more trip planning versus trip planning within transit boundaries, more seamless bus transfers and uniform fare system that would be less confusing for the rider.

For example, the JPA could implement a zone-based or distance-based fare system, which would be difficult under the current system of operations. In addition, a single consolidated agency could more easily implement an electronic fare collection system, which the individual transit agencies are currently working to implement.

TCAG executive director Ted Smalley has been personally presenting the plan to most city councils and the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. Smalley said the soon-to-be-formed agency would be more consistent and seamless for the rider across jurisdictional boundaries, reduce administrative costs for reporting and regulations, and make Tulare County more competitive for bidding contracts and grant funding.

On June 30, Smalley presented the transit consolidation plan to the Board of Supervisors. Smalley noted that consolidation should result in savings of $1 million each year split between local transit agencies due to economies of scale. Those savings could be spent on roads within each city and the county thanks to a rule that allows cities to use any remaining funds on streets and roads projects if all of an agency’s transit needs have been met for the year.

“There are no guarantees,” Smalley said. “Cost increases are coming and if you don’t do anything you are going to have to reduce services. The only guarantee is if we do nothing, nothing will improve.”

He went on to say that the County is currently spending three times as much on bus routes than its counterparts in Kings and Fresno, both of which have consolidated with other agencies in their counties.

“We can ad nauseum study the JPA for two more years, and then in two years we will have a discussion just like this. And you will have more questions,” Smalley said. “In the end, we are going to see cost savings.”

Supervisor Amy Shuklian motioned to approve the JPA which was seconded by Supervisor Kuyler Crocker before a unanimous vote. Crocker, who represents District One including three of the county’s eight cities and a portion of Visalia, said the move would make all cities involved more efficient with their tax payer dollars, better able to service riders and save more money for roads.

“We all know we need better roads. There is a tremendous amount of transit only dollars that we can use,” Crocker said. “I really think this could be a transformational improvement.”

The only city council to vote down involvement in the JPA was Visalia. Tulare County’s largest city and transit provider had already voiced its opposition to the plan, simply saying it could provide Visalia residents with better service than a countywide transit agency in September 2019. Last month, Visalia unanimously voted against joining the JPA with no discussion on the item during its June 14 meeting.

On June 16, the city of Tulare, the county’s second largest city, asked how Visalia’s decision would affect the JPA.

“If the County, Porterville and Tulare, that core group joined, that would be enough,” Smalley said.

The Tulare City Council voted 3-1 to join the JPA with Councilmember Carlton Jones voting no and Councilmember Greg Nunely being absent.

A week later, the two cities which currently rely on Visalia Transit for bus routes voted to join the JPA, despite Visalia’s vote against it. The Farmersville and Exeter city councils both voted to join the JPA at their June 22 and 23 meeting, respectively. In its June update, TCAG noted that consolidation efforts should involve at least three members that represent more than half of the transit service in the county. Exeter and Farmersville’s votes tipped the scales in favor of countywide transit system.

As of July 1, the only city yet to approve the JPA was Porterville, which was expected to join the JPA last night at its July 7 meeting.

Under the original plan, which included all six transit agencies in the county, Visalia would have paid 40% of the overall cost, followed by the County at 21%, Porterville at 15%, Tulare at 13%, Dinuba at 5% and the smaller cities at less than 2% each. With Visalia out, the remaining shares of costs are as follows: Dinuba 8.2%, Exeter 5.25%, Farmersville 5.35%, Lindsay 3.15%, Porterville 24.85, Tulare 20.95%, County 31.2%.

“We know that the city of Visalia is not always the easiest to work with but have a good solidarity with the other cities and could get results working with them independently,” Crocker said.

Once formed, the JPA would consist of eight voting agencies (the County and all of the cities with the exception of Visalia) and two ex-officio representatives from CalVans and TCAG Transit. Most decision would be made by a majority of the voting members but a few issues would require unanimous approval, such as the budget, funding claims, withdrawal of an agency prior to the completion of its new members term (defined as the year the agency joined and the ensuing three fiscal years) and the readmission of an agency that was a prior member and had since withdrawn.

Start typing and press Enter to search