At the Inyo County Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, February 23, Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA) director Phil Moores spoke to the supervisors about how the agency performed in Fiscal Year 2019-2020 and what plans may be in the pipeline in the coming months/year.
Ridership, unsurprisingly, was down 21.63% from the previous fiscal year, which led to a subsequent drop in revenue and service hours.
Moores noted that maintenance costs were up despite reduced hours and revenues, an indicator that the fleet is aging out of it’s useful lifespan.
The replacments for the fleet, Moores said, are projected to be electric buses per the state’s requirements as laid out in the Innovative Clean Transit Act (ICT), which pushes public transit into the renewable energy sector.
The Sheet spoke with Moores after the meeting about these buses, what they might look like, and when people could start to expect them on the road.
Currently, ESTA is conducting a demo program with a number of bus models to determine the best fit for their business.
Moores explained that the Federal Transit Authority has a useful life benchmark for buses; the fleet used in Mammoth Lakes will be 12 years old (the threshold) in 2024 and ESTA is eligible to apply for grants to replace the aging vehicles.
Moores said that he plans to start the application process at some point next year, as any grant money received has a relatively lengthy time limit on when it must be spent.
He added that the Town of Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area have been resourceful and helpful partners in the process; ESTA has already begun saving money in anticipation of the new buys.
“We should be leading this cause in my mind,” Moores said of sustainabile options in transit.
There are two options that would suit ESTA’s needs: a battery powered electric bus that requires charging or a hydrogen fuel cell electric bus, which runs on hydrogen and generates electricity to charge the bus’s batteries.
The by-products of this sort of engine are only heat and water, which Moores noted is a lot more environmentally friendly than carbon.
The ICT requires that transit authorities begin purchasing electric/zero emission vehicles by 2026, with 2029 as a hard date for having a fully electric fleet.
That’s not all that ESTA may have in store for the future.
Moores also said that he’d been asked by local officials including the Local Transportation Commission (LTC) to explore the possibility of providing public transit access to trailheads in Inyo County.
Moores said that the trailheads under consideration are Onion Valley, Horseshoe Meadows and Whitney Portal.
A Bishop Creek shuttle already exists along Route 68 to South Lake and Sabrina; this summer will mark its 4th year of operation.
Moores acknowledged that there are currently private businesses offering shuttle service to the trailheads via charter.
“That’s where ESTA can’t compete,” Moores said, “we cannot compete with private companies for charter services. That would be a misuse of public funding.” ESTA’s status as a public agency means that it doesn’t have to worry about turning a profit and can therefore offer services for cheaper, effectively pricing out the private companies.
If ESTA were to provide that service, he said, it would be a regularly scheduled shuttle. But ESTA stands to lose money on that sort of service because it’s highly unlikely that there’s a ton of riders are looking for trailhead access midweek.
So it would need to subsidized, he said, but finding funding for subsidies will be challenge given the pandemic.
Another component is the Forest Service: ESTA would need a permit to operate on federal lands and any infrastructure/rules would have to be enforced by Forest Service staff.
Since the Forest Service is short on both staff and funding at the moment, immediate progress seems unlikely; Moores speculated that any service would begin at the very earliest in Summer 2022.
The focus, he said, would be on Whitney Portal access, as Horseshoe Meadows has a sizable parking lot and Onion Valley isn’t in high demand.
Further down the line, Moores envisioned a potential route linking Yosemite Valley to Whitney portal to service through hikers on the John Muir or Sierra Crest trails.
Trailheads in Mono County are mostly serviced in one form or another and the transit system in and around Mammoth Lakes is extensive, Moores said. Hence, he hasn’t gotten any request for expansion.
The issue struck a chord with Inyo County Supervisor Jen Roeser at Tuesday’s meeting; The Sheet followed up with Roeser, who in addition to being a supervisor also owns and operates the McGee Creek Pack Station.
Roeser said that Moores proposal properly identifies an area of need in Inyo County as “trailheads were built for a 1960s model of recreation” that leaves much to desired today.
She said backcountry pack outfits and travel businesses could benefit immensely from consistent service to a trailhead, as increased public interest in extended backpacking trips/through-hiking correlates to more business and demand for parking at specific sites.
Roeser also expressed support for the private entities already offering shuttle services, taking the view that public and private could work efficiently in tandem to provide efficient and responsible access to trailheads.