Napa Valley Transportation Authority Adds Greener Travel Option In Wine Country

By Harrell Kerkhoff Busline Magazine Editor

NVTA Program Manager – Transit & ADA Compliance Coordinator Rebecca Schenck is shown with one of the agency’s new RIDE electric buses. (Photo courtesy of NVTA)

Galileo, noted Italian astronomer, physicist, and engineer, reportedly described wine as “sunlight, held together by water.” While driving through Napa County, CA, home of the world-famous Napa Valley wine region, one can better understand that description. It’s an area known for warm and sunny summer days along with lush vegetation due to adequate water management. Nature is important here, as is conservation.

It should be of no surprise then the emergence of “green” transportation taking hold at the Napa Valley Transportation Authority (NVTA), which serves as the area’s public transportation agency. For example, NVTA purchased five RIDE K7MER 30-foot electric buses with the help of a Low or No Emission Grant from the Federal Transit Administration. Two of the five electric buses are being used for on-demand shuttle work — one each in the Napa County cities of Yountville and St. Helena. The other three are operated on fixed-routes within the City of Napa, the county seat, as well as the headquarters of NVTA.

“We identified RIDE as a partner early in the process since the company produces 30-foot electric buses, matching our needs,” NVTA Program Manager – Transit & ADA Compliance Coordinator Rebecca Schenck said, during a recent interview. “NVTA is proud to be partnering with RIDE involving our first-ever electric vehicles.”

She added the five buses have helped NVTA start the transition process to an eventual 100 percent zero-emission fleet, ahead of the deadline set by the California Air Resource Board.

“At 30 feet in length, these vehicles are very nimble and perfect for operating on-demand bus and other public transportation services,” Schenck said. “We’re happy with the size and look of these vehicles from RIDE. It’s also a good way to ‘dip our toes’ into the electric vehicle transition. They are nice-sized vehicles for us, meeting the demands of our county’s approximate 140,000 residents. The 30-foot bus makes a lot of sense for our operation.”

The exterior design of the RIDE K7MER 30-foot electric bus operated in Yountville features a honeybee, symbolizing the importance of pollinators in the heart of California’s wine country. Other designs on the NVTA 30-foot electric buses include a butterfly and a hawk.

NVTA’s overall public transportation service includes the operation of the Vine Transit bus system, of which Vine fixed-route, on-demand shuttle and VineGo door-to-door ADA paratransit services fall under. NVTA also provides regional and express bus service to key transportation hubs such as the Vallejo Ferry Terminal, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system, and Amtrak. The NVTA mission is to provide safe, efficient, and sustainable transportation choices for residents, workers, businesses, and visitors in Napa Valley.

NVTA operates as a joint powers authority under California law, servicing Napa County, and is the only transit agency in the county after consolidation took place in 1998. Today, along with the City of Napa, NVTA provides public transportation services in the Napa County cities of Yountville, St. Helena, American Canyon, and Calistoga. It also provides regional bus service to nearby Solano and Contra Costa counties.

Because Napa, Solano and Contra Costa counties are located in the northeastern portion of the San Francisco Bay Area, NVTA also plays a key role in helping commuters travel to and from such key Bay Area cities as San Francisco and Oakland.

“Within Napa County, our service region encompasses roughly 50 miles, but connections are in place that allow passengers to reach larger metropolitan areas. Besides cities along San Francisco Bay, our passengers can make connections to such cities as Sacramento, Fresno and Stockton — areas to the east and south of Napa County which are also main population hubs,” Schenck said.

The NVTA fleet includes approximately 50 fixed-route and 14 paratransit vehicles, plus a small number of shuttle buses. Those vehicles will soon be better served with the near completion of a new 28,000-square-foot maintenance facility, being constructed on eight acres of land in southern Napa County. The facility will include updated charging infrastructure for NVTA’s emerging electric bus fleet. Other benefits will include six service bays and a modern bus wash station; a regional meeting center; a transit emergency operations center; parking for transit vehicles, employees, and visitors; and more space for bus maintenance with easier and safer access to fueling stations.

The Soscol Gateway Transit Center in the City of Napa currently serves as the main hub for NVTA transit operations. There are also four park-and-ride locations in the county.

“The new facility is our big focus right now. Getting it operational is especially important as our electric bus fleet grows,” Schenck said. “Such growth is possible with the emergence of the new facility, which will include 12 chargers.”

NVTA currently has electric bus chargers in place at various locations within its service area, the implementation of which was a learning experience for local transit officials.

“For example, we had to work with PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric Company) involving a transformer upgrade,” Schenck explained. “There is also a lot involved with approval processes when entering the electric vehicle market. The key is to plan early when it comes to the needed infrastructure. The process does not happen overnight.”

She added feedback from passengers has been positive when it comes to NVTA’s new electric buses, with many commenting on the quietness of the vehicles as they travel down a street or are at a bus stop.

“I think the public, in general, appreciates our electric buses. We do see them growing in popularity over time, as our electric fleet expands,” Schenck said.

Meeting A Diverse Population’s Needs

Napa County is a major tourist destination in California, an area known for its wineries, restaurants, arts, culture, and natural beauty. It also has a large population of Spanish-speaking residents who work in agriculture and other occupations. Helping this diverse subsect of residents and visitors get from one place to another via public transportation is among the key functions of NVTA.

“We are always working on, and making improvements to, our marketing and outreach capabilities,” Schenck said. “It goes back to the initial rebranding of our transportation services, incorporating the words ‘Vine’ and ‘VineGo’ in association with our fixed-route and paratransit operations.

“We also offer the NVTA V-Commute Program, helping people find alternative transportation for a better commuting experience. That includes the arrangement of local carpooling options. We have tried to be consistent with our ‘Vine’ brand since we are located in wine country.”

The “vine” theme also makes sense in another way. Most of the county’s residents live in a valley, with a major road (State Route 29) serving as the main travel artery. As a public transportation provider, NVTA uses SR 29 a lot, a route that can be considered the main “vine” in the valley.

“It’s important we reach out to people on the grassroots level,” Schenck added. “For example, I recently met with a group of kindergartners, showing them the benefits of using our bus service. The same is true for other groups, such as senior citizens and immigrants.

“With the latter group, many are Spanish speakers. In response, NVTA recently hired a part-time employee who works with the local Hispanic community. NVTA representatives also participate in many Hispanic events and celebrations, such as those connected with Cinco de Mayo and Día de la Familia. That helps us connect with many Napa Valley farmworkers.”

Members of the immigrant community who are new to the county sometimes don’t know how to use public transportation in the area, such as getting to school or employment. Many also don’t have access to a vehicle. To help, NVTA provides travel training through the Vine Transit Ambassador Program, which offers personalized orientation for new users of public transit in Napa County. Trained staff and volunteers assist new riders in learning how to read schedules, use transfers, plan a trip, and more. Participants also receive a 30-day bus pass.

Customer service is provided in other ways as well. For example, many Vine and VineGo drivers — along with dispatchers and customer service representatives — are multilingual. Although this mainly involves English and Spanish, there are a few employees who speak Tagalong, a common language used in the Philippians, which helps since there is also a large Filipino population in Napa County.

“Having a multilingual staff is important in many ways, such as when a non-English speaking person gets on a bus and needs help. If one of our bus drivers can’t speak the language, chances are someone in dispatch does and can help with a question or problem,” Schenck said. “Overall, it’s important to let both immigrants and all residents of Napa County know that using our services is a viable way to get around and to gain independence. That is why we spend so much time reaching out to different groups, letting them know our different options for not only transportation but also employment.”

Transit operations for NVTA are provided by Transdev, a U.S. private operator of multiple modes of public transportation, including bus, paratransit, and shuttle services. Transdev currently employs approximately 100 people who work in the NVTA transportation network. That includes drivers, dispatchers, maintenance personnel, customer service representatives, and utility workers. NVTA itself dedicates two full-time employees and two people who work part-time on Vine Transit.

Cooperation between NVTA and Transdev over the years has helped secure enough employees to keep public transportation services rolling along in Napa County.

“There have been struggles recruiting new employees, specifically right after the COVID pandemic. In response, Transdev has made sure wages for drivers and other employees are competitive compared to area public transportation providers,” Schenck said. “It’s also important to help current and new employees gain additional skill sets, allowing them to meet demands brought about by advanced technology. That includes being able to work on and drive an electric vehicle.

“I feel our new state-of-the-art maintenance facility will help attract additional people. It will also be located closer to Solano County, which is where we have been able to recruit many drivers and maintenance personnel.”

Although all jobs in public transportation are important, the role drivers play in the daily safe operation of large vehicles — often in heavy traffic and sometimes in bad weather — cannot be overemphasized. A successful driver, according to Schenck, is proficient in two main areas — one is technical by nature and the other involves solid customer service.

“A good driver must not only know how to safely maneuver a large vehicle in heavy traffic through tight streets, but also be able and willing to assist passengers involving a variety of issues,” Schenck said. “Providing a good first impression with passengers and being very patient are key attributes. The main thing is possessing the ability to remain calm, collected, and professional during a variety of situations.”

Another essential part of customer service is providing modern tools to make the customer experience seamless and, ultimately, positive. For example, at NVTA, passengers can use the “Ride The Vine” app to book on-demand shuttle transportation. Schenck said the app is free to download, easy to use, and provides real-time information on where a vehicle is located. An automatic vehicle location system is also available for fixed-route Vine riders via the Transit App.

NVTA officials are looking into the capability of asking app users, in real time, key questions during their travel experience, involving such topics as the timeliness and cleanliness of a specific bus the app user is on, the condition of a specific bus shelter, etc. The objective is to receive important feedback for future service and infrastructure improvements.

Technology is also being used at NVTA in other ways, such as helping the transportation authority become more sophisticated with its electric vehicle charging process.

Schenck explained: “Unlike gas or diesel, the price of electricity can vary greatly based on the time of day. It therefore matters when our vehicles are charged. Charging management has become very important at NVTA, something we are working to perfect as we move into our new maintenance facility.”

Emerging From The Pandemic Experience

Just like many public transportation systems across the country, and globe, ridership numbers have slowly improved after several disruptive years brought about by the COVID pandemic. During the last fiscal year of 2022-23, the Vine fixed-route system generated 1,086,917 revenue miles and transported 413,166 passengers, while the VineGo paratransit service experienced 258,398 revenue miles and had 74,829 users.

“We are getting back to normal from the aftereffects of the pandemic. Currently, we’re approximately 10 percent below where we were pre-COVID in terms of services provided on the street, but much lower in terms of ridership,” Schenck said. “It’s important to decide what makes the most sense for us long term in terms of financial viability. We decreased the amount of service during COVID and are slowly bringing it back, based upon our financial projections, as we’re trying to work within our means.”

She noted certain changes in commute patterns have taken place since the pandemic as more people are working from home.

“We have especially noticed such changes with our longer commute routes to and from nearby Solano and Contra Costa counties. For example, whereas in the past riders may have used this service five days a week, many of them are now making the trek two or three days a week,” Schenck said.

The post-pandemic period has also presented other challenges — especially when trying to construct a new facility.

“There have been issues within the supply chain,” Schenck said, adding certain items that would normally take weeks to arrive for its construction have ended up taking months.

One of many lessons learned from the pandemic, she added, has involved the importance of key partners, such as those representing the public health sector. The pandemic also changed the travel focus of many transit agencies during such a crisis, including NVTA.

“Traditionally, we specialize in bringing people to where they need to go, such as the grocery store. During COVID, that focus switched to where we brought food to the people. In many cases, we worked with the Napa County Office of Emergency Services and other nonprofits to make daily food deliveries to quarantine sites,” Scheck said. “Along with providing a needed service, it was a good way to keep our drivers employed during the pandemic.”

As for the remainder of 2024 and beyond, Schenck said there are certain goals planned for Vine, VineGo and the other public transportation services provided by NVTA.

“We know there are no miraculous ways to get ridership up to pre-COVID levels, but we’re focusing on meeting percentage increases every year. There is also excitement with our new maintenance facility and the transition to electric vehicles or potentially other alternative fuels such as hydrogen,” she said. “I believe our future is bright.”

Schenck also spoke highly on public transportation as a career choice.

“No two days of mine are the same. It can be a very exciting and rewarding career. There are a lot of different jobs within the public transportation sector, such as those that involve financial planning, software development, and customer service,” she said. “Also, with the emergence of technology comes different types of careers that will be needed for this line of work. That is especially true as transit providers work toward introducing more alternative-fuel vehicles.”

Visit nvta.ca.gov.

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