After 3 Decades Of Growth: Victor Valley Transit Authority Continues Focus On Meeting Different Ridership Needs

By Harrell Kerkhoff Busline Magazine Editor

Victor Valley Transit Authority (VVTA) provides a variety of public transportation services in Southern California. VVTA employee Melissa Perry is shown helping a passenger.

Starting in 1993 from a gravel parking lot and metal shed, Victor Valley Transit Authority (VVTA) has come a long way over the past 31 years. Today, VVTA averages 1 million-plus passengers per year, and provides a variety of services in an area that encompasses 1,000 square miles. VVTA is based in Hesperia, CA, with a second facility in Barstow, CA — located approximately 40 miles to the northeast.

Surrounded by the Mojave Desert, the Southern California cities of Hesperia, Victorville, Adelanto, Barstow, and Apple Valley, along with several unincorporated areas, are part of what is locally referred to as the High Desert — and all within the VVTA service area in San Bernardino County. The county itself is the largest in the contiguous United States by area. For reference, it’s close to the size of West Virginia.

“Although some people consider the High Desert, which we operate from, a ‘bathroom stop’ between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the cities in our service area have grown by leaps and bounds over the past 30 years,” Victor Valley Transit Senior Marketing Manager/Public Information Officer Chris Ackerman said. “VVTA is considered a smaller transit agency by national standards, but our service area is quite large — encompassing more land than many urban agencies. We cover a lot of miles, and a lot of those miles are very rural by nature.”

Despite a continual population increase in the VVTA service region, Ackerman said the area still enjoys a small-town feel. He added that VVTA ridership has grown exponentially since 2022 after a lag period during the 2020/2021 COVID pandemic years.

Since its inception, VVTA has played a pivotal role in connecting communities, enhancing mobility, and improving the quality of life for thousands of people. Over the past three decades, VVTA has grown from a modest transit service to a comprehensive transportation network that serves the High Desert’s diverse population. Key VVTA achievements over the past 30 years include:

  • Expansion of Services: VVTA has continually expanded during its history, involving a growing range of transportation options to accommodate the needs of residents. This growth has included more fixed-routes, commuter and van pool services, ADA paratransit, and Micro-Link, which is VVTA’s microtransit program;
  • Modernization: VVTA has embraced technological advancements, incorporating innovations such as real-time tracking, mobile apps, and contactless payment options to improve the passenger experience;
  • Environmental Initiatives: VVTA has been committed to reducing its environmental footprint by incorporating cleaner and more sustainable transportation solutions into its fleet, including 12 battery electric buses, and is in the process of adding hydrogen fuel cell bus transportation;
  • Community Engagement: The authority has fostered strong ties with the local community through outreach programs, partnerships with schools and non-profit agencies, and participation in community events; and,
  • Accessibility: VVTA has worked to ensure that public transportation is accessible to all residents, including those with disabilities or special needs.

“Our transportation services today are vast,” Ackerman said. “They include 34 fixed-routes; a commuter bus service to and from the Fort Irwin Army Base (located 37 miles northeast of Barstow); the 11th largest van pool service in the United States; an ADA Direct Access paratransit service; a TRIP (Transportation Reimbursement and Information Program) service for passengers who are unable to use fixed-route or paratransit; and a VVTA senior transportation program serving the smaller communities of Big River and Trona, in partnership with local senior centers.”

One of VVTA’s more popular fixed-routes is Route 15, which runs between Barstow, Victorville, and the San Bernardino Transit Center. It transports people to what locals refer to as “down the hill,” meaning it can take a rider from the High Desert to San Bernardino, CA, and eventually to the Los Angeles metropolitan area, using connecting public transportation services.

“Our six-bus commuter service connecting Fort Irwin is also very popular, transporting military personnel and employees working at the military base. The first bus leaves at 3:56 a.m.,” Ackerman said.

Along with its large van pool service, VVTA participates in an ADA (The Americans with Disabilities Act) vehicle brokerage transportation program in partnership with area nonprofits, as well as a TRIP service, which provides self-directed, mileage reimbursement transportation. Within the TRIP program, volunteers, such as friends and neighbors, can transport transit-dependent seniors, people with disabilities, and other participants to access medical and other services when no other transit options exist. Participants receive funds to reimburse their volunteer driver(s) and to offset other costs associated with the transport.

Other VVTA programs include the relatively new Micro-Link service, which Ackerman said is growing by leaps and bounds to the point that the program is currently at capacity. Micro-Link is an on-demand, curb-to-curb shared microtransit service offered in parts of Victorville and Hesperia. Rides are $2 per one-way trip and operates from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays.

According to Ackerman, Micro-Link offers shorter wait times and better reliability in specific zoned areas. The wait time for the service is based on availability from time of reservation to time of pickup from a requested location within the service zone.

“On-demand allows users to access service when they need it, instead of having to plan a trip around a bus schedule. Arrival times are subject to changes based on unforeseen circumstances such as traffic and/or weather conditions, delays caused by passengers (i.e. no-shows), and/or traffic accidents,” according to VVTA. “Service is provided in a vehicle that will make short trips within the zoned area. Riders can’t hail a Micro-Link vehicle from the curb, like they would a bus. Trips must be scheduled in advance. Micro-Link riders can be dropped off at any bus stop in the zoned area, allowing each passenger to complete any trip outside of a zone. Micro-Link is a supplement to the existing bus service and is meant to complement equity, reliability, and efficiency improvements.”

To help with the transit system’s wide variety of services, VVTA offers its Travel Training Program. The objective is to teach any rider, regardless of experience, how to use the tools available to navigate public transit successfully.

As stated, VVTA also participates in an ADA vehicle brokerage program, which involves a partnership with area nonprofits. As part of the program, VVTA donates one or more of its recently retired ADA vehicles to a nonprofit for continued use. VVTA provides the preventative maintenance on those vehicles, while the nonprofit takes over actual operation of each vehicle.

“The vehicles are given a second lease on life, while helping a participating nonprofit better serve its clientele. And, as part of the agreement, VVTA passengers can also be transported, at a reduced fare,” Ackerman said.

Growing In Differing Ways

VVTA ridership continues to grow as the transit system rebounds from the throes of the COVID pandemic. VVTA experienced 3,125,466 revenue miles from July 2022 to June 2023, while its fixed-route ridership number was 829,562 during the December 2022 to November 2023 reporting period, according to Ackerman.

Currently, VVTA lists 28 full-time employees, while also maintaining a contract with Keolis North America that involves an estimated 324 people, including drivers, working at VVTA. The main VVTA facility is in Hesperia, which includes a maintenance garage that is open 24 hours a day. The VVTA fleet includes 68 fixed-route buses, 40 ADA direct access paratransit vehicles, 8 commuter buses, 5 Micro-Link vehicles as well as 26 support vehicles.

For years, VVTA officials have been moving the transit system’s fleet to zero emission transportation, featuring battery electric vehicles. That has included a partnership, starting in 2019, with Southern California Edison (SCE) involving a Charge Ready pilot program — bringing in power for up to 20 electric charging stations for VVTA’s Hesperia location.

“VVTA is one of four transit agencies that have been working with SCE from the very beginning of the program. In 2021, we added electrical infrastructure at our Barstow location, featuring more charge point stations for our battery electric fleet,” Ackerman said.

Battery electric buses have played an important role toward VVTA’s commitment to operating strictly zero emission vehicles by 2035.

“Our next move toward zero emissions involves hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. VVTA was the first agency in San Bernardino County to have battery electric buses. For us, however, there is a problem with the range limit of those vehicles, which is 120 to 150 miles. They then must be charged eight to nine hours. Because we operate in a very vast and rural area of the state, we have coverage blocks that range from 85 to 520 miles,” Ackerman explained. “That puts limits on our usage of battery electric vehicles. In response, we have made a move toward using hydrogen fuel cell technology.”

Prior to purchasing hydrogen fuel cell buses, it’s the goal of VVTA officials to have the proper infrastructure in place first, including the installation of public dispensers.

“Right now, the only people buying hydrogen fuel cell cars in California live in either Los Angeles or San Francisco, since that is where public dispensers for this technology are located,” Ackerman said. “It’s our goal to have public dispensers installed at our locations, with enough capacity to take care of our hydrogen fuel cell needs as well as those of the public. The end goal is to get more people interested in purchasing their own hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.”

He added that initially, three dispensers are planned for VVTA’s facility in Hesperia, two for VVTA’s fleet and one for public access — capable of taking care of both light- and heavy-duty applications. Liquid hydrogen will be stored in an 18,000-gallon tank at the same facility.

“An entire hydrogen fueling station will be built on property located next to our current Hesperia location, which will be followed by a new modern transportation hub,” Ackerman said. “We will keep our current battery electric buses in service until it’s time for their retirement. They will then be replaced with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.”

Growth involving VVTA is also coming in other ways. For example, the transit system is currently in the middle of a comprehensive operational analysis to help prepare for future population growth in San Bernardino County, as well as the projected Brightline West high-speed rail line. The latter is a project intended to provide people an alternative to air and automobile travel between Southern California and Las Vegas. One of the stations for the rail line is planned within the VVTA service region. Revenue service for Brightline West is estimated to begin in 2027.

“In response to population growth and new transportation opportunities in our area, the entire VVTA transit system will be revamped over the next couple of years,” Ackerman said. “Along with our other programs, I feel the burgeoning Micro-Link service will help propel VVTA into the future. We started the microtransit program in October 2022, and it’s currently at capacity. Micro-Link is a good way to get people who live far away from a bus stop to all our transportation options, with the objective of helping more people pursue their transportation journeys.

“Micro-Link also helps people shop at local businesses by better connecting neighborhoods, as well as providing good options when making medical appointments and enjoying local entertainment. There are also a lot of area school children who take advantage of our Micro-Link options. That has been a pleasant surprise. Our Micro-Link service is constantly booked, and we are looking to purchase six more vehicles to meet increased demand.”

Think Like A Customer

Modern vehicles and added services are meaningless to a public transportation provider if there are no passengers. It is therefore critical at VVTA to properly attract new, and serve existing, riders.

“One of our customer service philosophies is, ‘Think like a passenger.’ That is an important mindset,” Ackerman said. “For example, when it comes to marketing, it’s important our staff members communicate with people as if they are fellow passengers. Also, within VVTA’s operations team, it’s important to ride our buses and talk with passengers. The feedback is invaluable. We share the philosophy of ‘not leaving anybody behind’ when it comes to those who use our service.

“Our passengers also have access to modern text messaging, on-board Wi-Fi, and on-the-bus infotainment systems, allowing us to relay important information. Meanwhile, the VVTA website is huge, providing the public with a bevy of informative material. When it comes to marketing our services, it’s all about building relationships with passengers. It’s also important to be transparent, which people appreciate.”

It helps that VVTA has an experienced core group of leaders, led by CEO Nancie Goff. She started with the transit system as a clerk typist in 1994 and rose through the ranks to COO, before being named VVTA CEO in 2023.

Another key part to quality customer service is employing quality drivers. Ackerman has high praise for not only VVTA drivers — but public transportation drivers in general. He added their importance was on full display during the height of the COVID pandemic, something that was not always properly recognized.

“It always frustrated me during the pandemic when transit drivers, in particular, where not mentioned by the media in the same context as other essential workers — such as nurses and grocery store clerks,” Ackerman said. “Public transportation employees were on the front lines during that time, and showed how important our industry is when it comes to getting people to where they need to go. They made a big difference in the lives of many people, and that continues.

“I will never forget talking with a passenger during the pandemic who was battling a rare illness and needed to visit a doctor on a regular basis. She told me, ‘I don’t know what I would do if your service (VVTA) stopped.’ It’s important to let our drivers and other employees know just how important their work is for all types of passengers — including those in dire need of transportation.”

He added the importance of drivers has been magnified during the current shortage of such employees. It’s a challenge that VVTA and many other public transportation providers have battled for years, dating prior to the pandemic.

“Fortunately, VVTA have found success finding new drivers through hiring fairs. We also invite interested candidates to visit our facilities and see what type of work we provide,” Ackerman said.

Once interested candidates are hired as drivers, they undergo an extensive training process at VVTA that includes classroom work, exams, help with acquiring necessary permits, and 40 hours of behind-the-wheel training.

“It helps that VVTA has certified safety training managers on staff and is also a third-party testing facility for the state of California,” Ackerman said.

Goals And Opportunities

The start of a new year is a good time for public transportation providers to outline goals and expected challenges. Oftentimes, such goals and challenges are intertwined. Ackerman discussed three main challenges that many transit systems, including VVTA, are addressing — with the end goal of bringing forward a more prosperous future. They are:

  • Attracting new riders One of the best ways to find riders of the future is to develop programs that show young people the many benefits of using and supporting public transportation. At VVTA, that goal has included a new partnership with the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority (SBCTA) and supporting agencies, allowing all K-12 county students to ride fare free on VVTA fixed and county routes. Passengers show their student ID to the bus operator for participation. The one-year pilot project is currently available seven days a week.

Free rides are currently available as well for students attending an area charter school, and students of Victor Valley College, and Cal State University San Bernardino. VVTA also provided free rides for everyone in the county, whether a student or not, during the entire month of October 2023. That was in celebration of the transit system’s 30th anniversary.

“It’s important to always reach out to new riders. Prior to last October’s free ride program, we were averaging 60,000 fixed-route trips per month. During the free ride month, ridership increased to 113,000 trips,” Ackerman said. “It was exciting to see 86,000 fixed-route trips take place in November, once the fares were put back in place — proving that many new riders experienced the benefits of using our system and were willing to pay the fares.”

  • Keeping riders and drivers safe from violence — Unfortunately, one disturbing trend taking place within the public transportation industry involves an increase in violence directed at both passengers and drivers. To keep people safe while using VVTA services, The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department now has a team in place, comprised of one sergeant and four deputies, assigned to the Victor Valley Transit Division. The team works directly with VVTA to enhance the safety of passengers and drivers. Passengers now see the deputies riding the buses, as well as monitoring activity at bus stops and the Victor Valley Transportation Center.

“With the VVTA and The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department joining forces, it provides a powerful alliance dedicated to safeguarding passenger safety,” VVTA Board Chair Liz Becerra said, in a press release. “By pooling our expertise, we can effectively address security concerns, deter criminal activities, and swiftly respond to emergencies. This partnership fosters a sense of security and promotes the well-being of commuters, making public transportation a reliable and trusted mode of travel for all.”

  • Getting passengers from point A to point B faster than a personal vehicle — This third challenge corresponds with a personal goal, according to Ackerman. One option may be the development of “bus-only lanes” in certain areas of San Bernardino County.

“We currently do not have such lanes in the High Desert, but it’s an option that may help VVTA provide even better and faster service in the future,” Ackerman said, adding VVTA continues to enjoy strong support among local governments, business leaders and community partners.

Such support includes recognition. For example, VVTA recently received the “Spirit of the High Desert Award” during a program hosted by the Greater High Desert Chamber of Commerce. The award, presented to businesses actively contributing to the community’s well-being, highlighted VVTA’s contributions and dedication to enhancing the quality of life in the High Desert region.

Greater High Desert Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Creffield commented in a press release, “Victor Valley Transit has not only demonstrated exceptional growth and innovation, but their success reflects the dynamic and resilient spirit that defines our thriving business ecosystem. This Accolade Award for Spirit of the High Desert is well-deserved, and we applaud their leadership, vision, and impact on the business landscape.”

Visit vvta.org.

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