The Madera County Board of Supervisors has voted to open the door, just a crack, to reconsidering whether county residents will participate in the Yosemite Area Regional Transit System (YARTS).
The Board voted 3-2 on Tuesday to accept the $15,000 budgeted by the Fresno Council Of Governments (COG) to ask people in Madera County what they think of participating in the YARTS program to run buses from Fresno, up Highway 41 to Yosemite.
This has been a contentious issue, especially in Eastern Madera County, since it was introduced to the Board of Supervisors in 1999. It was presented again in 2007, and was met with intense resistance both times.
The board voted in each instance not to participate in the YARTS program. Tuesday’s vote directs the Madera County Transportation Commission (MCTC) staff to cooperate in looking into the matter, but it is clear that there are still huge stumbling blocks if the Board’s position on YARTS were to change.
At first glance, newcomers to the area might wonder why the Visitors Bureau, all the area Chambers of Commerce and most merchants would be opposed to having bus service through Eastern Madera County.
“I don’t have a problem with the buses. I have a problem with the economics,” said Dan Cunning, Chief Executive Officer of the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau in Oakhurst. “The Fresno Board of Supervisors has come out publicly that they want Fresno to be the gateway to Yosemite.
“People faced with a 6-hour round-trip bus ride aren’t going to stop and shop in Oakhurst. They want to use their time to explore Yosemite. And those people aren’t going to stay overnight in Oakhurst either, they’re going to ride the bus back to Fresno and stay there. We need to take that into consideration before any cooperation with an entity that’s trying to take business away from us.”
District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, who voted in favor of cooperating with the public outreach program, said he was fighting for the citizens of Eastern Madera County.
“We have to make a decision about whether we’re going to be at the table or not. They’re going to have a bus that goes right through Eastern Madera County whether we like it or not. They’re going to stop at the casino, but not in Oakhurst if we choose not to participate.
“I don’t like it, but we can either put our heads in the sand and watch them drive by every day, or we can join in and see what we might be able to do for our local businesses and our citizens. We are the largest gateway to Yosemite, and we need to fight for what we have. If you don’t grow, you’ll die.”
Perhaps the largest point of contention with YARTS is the position taken by the National Park Service (NPS) in the 1980 General Management Plan (GMP) for Yosemite, now being reviewed and amended through the Merced River Plan (MRP).
The plan states the NPS objective is to remove access to private vehicles into the valley floor if a viable alternative were available. That alternative would be a regional transportation system servicing the gateway communities and the park, and would, in the minds of many, open the door to a ban on private vehicles.
Madera County has held firm over the years that it is not willing to participate in any public transportation system into the park unless and until that language has been removed.
MCTC Planner Dillon Stone told the Board on Tuesday that his conversations with park officials indicate that it is their intention to remove that language in the MRP.
“I’ve spoken with the project manager for the Merced River Plan, along with the Deputy Superintendent, Special Assistant to the Superintendent and the Chief Ranger,” said Stone. “All have expressed that they have no intention of reducing private vehicles in Yosemite Valley. What they want to do in amending the GMP is to include private vehicles along with public transit options like YARTS.”
But many members of the public and the Board are skeptical about any Park Service promises to implement those changes in the MRP.
“We must have that language firmly in place before we can do any negotiating and work with them,” said Supervisor Frank Bigelow. “We’ve held strong; now is not the time to buckle. The only reason we are hearing today that they’re willing to relent on prohibiting cars on the valley floor is because we’ve fought for that issue.”
Wheeler doesn’t believe that the day will ever come when cars will be banned from the valley.
“That language has been in there for 32 years, and nothing has happened,” Wheeler said. “Nobody is for it, including me. There would be a huge public uprising; we like our cars. But a lot of people think there’s a conspiracy. That sooner or later they’re going to keep the private vehicles out.”
“It’s not a conspiracy theory, it is a fact,” said Max Stauffer, owner of the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad and president of the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau. “At this point the Park Service can close Yosemite Valley to most vehicles other than for those people who are staying at the Ahwahnee or the Lodge, and until the Merced River Plan is signed off by the director, that can happen. We remain resolute in our opposition to YARTS coming from Fresno through Madera County to Yosemite.”
Donna Sisson of the Office of the Superintendent, Public Involvement and Outreach, confirms that indeed, “The 1980 GMP, which is our plan of record today, includes the stated goal to remove private vehicles from the valley.” But, she insists, “The concept of eliminating private vehicles from the valley has been considered and dismissed.”
Not everyone is opposed to the YARTS plan. Dave Wolin, chairman of the Emergency Preparedness Committee, the Economic Development Committee and the Madera County Film Commission, says he thinks this is a “no-brainer.”
“I don’t even know why we’re having this discussion,” Wolin told the Board. “Banning private vehicles has been off the agenda through the last few park superintendents. The Park Service published in print that they wouldn’t consider this. This is like banning CD’s so I can keep my 8-track tape store open.”
Wolin said many of those objecting are the same groups who are always suing the Park Service over camping or paving, and that they are misinformed or uninformed.
“This is the busiest national park in the country with 4 ½ million visitors. With all the backed up traffic and air pollution, having 4 percent of the visitors traveling on buses would be a good thing.
“Tuolumne County took advantage of grant money that Madera County turned down. The Fresno COG program will stop in Oakhurst or not. People now fly into Fresno, take a taxi to the train station, get off in Merced and ride YARTS to the park. We miss everything. Be proactive. Have buses stop in Oakhurst, have people stay overnight, spend their dollars in Madera County, get on a bus the next day and go to the park.”
There are other issues to consider when evaluating the impact of buses stopping in Oakhurst. Many were expressed at both the Supervisor meeting and the Town Hall meeting in Oakhurst on July 26th. Questions being raised include:
- Where would the buses stop?
- What about the lack of internal transportation in town?
- How would visitors get to Bass Lake or the museum in North Fork or even the Visitors Bureau?
- Would there be another bus coming along in a few hours so travelers could continue on their way to either Yosemite or Fresno?
Some Town Hall attendees raised the concern that YARTS is 85% funded by taxpayers, and reports that buses currently running on Highways 120, 140 and 395 are mostly empty, with 40% of the riders from Mariposa being park employees.
Some from the area Chambers of Commerce and Visitors Bureau have indicated a willingness to revisit the issue, but many still want to wait for concrete language in the Merced River Plan which will be open for a public comment period this fall, and is scheduled to be finalized in the spring of 2013.
The Madera County Board of Supervisors has agreed at this point to participate in the public outreach program and further explore the possibilities of participating in the YARTS program. The MCTC will come back to the Board with their findings after the outreach project is complete.
Supervisor Max Rodriguez said, “We have to stay involved to get the best deal for Madera County. All the facts haven’t rolled out yet, but if it’s advantageous we need to participate. Let’s go forward with it and see how it unfolds, and if it works for us, jump on board.”