How Hard Is It To Catch A Bus At Lake Tahoe? That Depends

Jan 27, 2016

A bus arrives on schedule at a stop along Highway 50. This is one of about 40 buses the Tahoe Transportation District operates, connecting South Lake Tahoe to Minden, Gardnerville and Carson City.
Credit Julia Ritchey

Yesterday we looked at ways Lake Tahoe jurisdictions are reducing how much road grit is polluting the water. But environmentalists contend the only meaningful way to “Keep Tahoe Blue” is getting people out of their cars altogether. Our reporter Julia Ritchey explores if that’s really feasible.

At a bus stop off Highway 50 outside of The League to Save Lake Tahoe headquarters, Jesse Patterson is waiting.

"And so we're waiting for a bus here today and when it gets here, we're going to take it over to Heavenly Village, where we can enjoy Lake Tahoe without having to get in our car," he says.

Patterson is deputy director at the League, and we — that's me and Patterson — are conducting a test.

First, we want to see if the bus will arrive on time, and second, we want to determine if it's actually a convenient way to get to lunch, where we plan to meet some local transportation officials.

Chris Carney, left, and Jesse Patterson, right, both with the League to Save Lake Tahoe, or Keep Tahoe Blue, wait for the bus outside their office.
Credit Julia Ritchey

  As we puzzle over the bus schedule, South Lake Tahoe resident Ed Mosur pulls up on his bike. He says riding the bus can be hit or miss.

"They don't always run on time is the problem," he says. "If they get 20 minutes behind, they skip a run and you end up waiting 45 minutes or one hour without knowing."

Weather can also be a factor, which is why he prefers biking.

Asked if his friends and neighbors ever ride the bus...

"Uhhh... no," Mosur laughs.

Fearing our experiment may yield less than optimal results, Patterson suggests a plan B.

“We could drive there and some of us could try to ride the bus back,” says Patterson.

"Ok, so we'll give it till 11:52 and then we'll bail," I say.

Before we can bail, sure enough, a blue and white bus appears and we get on, paying $2 as we board.

Patterson has been advocating for increased transit at the lake and says he's pleased to see the bus is more than half full with a mix of commuters as well as snowboarders headed to Heavenly ski resort.

"[E]verybody’s going to compare alternative transportation to the option of driving in their car, and so it has to be attractive and it has to be at least somewhat similar or provide an advantage," he says.

Carl Hasty manages the Tahoe Transportation District, a bi-state agency that runs about 40 buses, including the one we're on, with an annual budget of about $5.5 million.

Right now, the district connects South Lake Tahoe to Minden, Gardnerville and Carson City, with some seasonal routes.

"But our aim is to create an inter-regional transit system," says Hasty.

Just last month, the district's board of directors approved an eight-year plan to create this seamless system, connecting Interstate 80 to Truckee and the Lake Tahoe communities around Highway 50.

Hasty says there’s demand, particularly among visitors from the Bay Area.

"They're coming from urban areas and they're very used to transit, especially with the commute and that type of thing" he says.

Several projects to increase connectivity are already underway, and Hasty says the largest of those will be the return of a passenger ferry connecting North Shore to South Shore.

The district also works with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, or TRPA, on projects including more bike trails and pedestrian crossings.

Morgan Beryl is a TRPA planner and says they're trying to encourage a cultural shift among tourists and residents.

"We do that by having the bus be on time, frequency, hopefully every 30 minutes, good locations for stops, and also providing multimodal access."

Money is still Tahoe’s largest obstacle to getting more public transit, but a new federal funding formula approved last year should help.

Previous formulas had only counted year-round residents and didn't factor in the 3 million tourists who drive Tahoe's streets every year.

"We're optimistic that those federal funding formulas are going to better reflect the number of people who are coming here from other areas,” says Tom Lotshaw, also with the TRPA. “And help update our transportation to make it easier for them to get around."

There's no ballpark yet for how much more that will yield, but Lotshaw says it will make a difference.

After lunch, the League’s Jesse Patterson and I head back to the bus stop and a swift five minutes later, we've reboarded and are headed back to his office.

"Every time you come up here, you think you rent an SUV, so you can drive through the snow and when you get up here, you drive around the lake to see it all,” he says. “We're trying to shift that perception that you can experience all of Tahoe without getting in your car at all."

Patterson says with our bus trip a success, it may help convince others it's worth a little extra effort to ditch their cars.