Placer considers free public transit in North Lake Tahoe

Published Oct. 22, 2019

Free public transit could be coming soon to eastern Placer County, as the county Board of Supervisors today recommended moving forward with a program that will offer free fares for Tahoe Truckee Area Regional Transit bus routes in Placer County.

The program would be a two-year pilot and is expected to start as early as January 2020. 

“This is an important step forward for our transportation efforts in eastern Placer County,” said District 5 Supervisor Cindy Gustafson. “I am strongly supportive of this effort, as this community thrives on our hospitality industries and serving our visitors. This is also a huge service to our community residents and employees who can benefit from this program. I see this as a win-win. 

A free transit system could have multiple benefits for the North Lake Tahoe region's economy and environment, Placer staff reported in a presentation to the board, such as improving mobility, air quality, and access to jobs, as well as serving as a key amenity expected by visitors seeking a high-quality vacation experience.

Research conducted for TART showed other public transit operations in similar resort communities that have shifted from fare systems to fare free have seen up to 50% ridership increases. In July 2018, the Town of Truckee implemented free transit on its TART routes and has seen a ridership increase of 32%.  

If implemented, the program would allocate up to $500,000 from transient occupancy tax funds for the two-year pilot. However, the county’s cost would be approximately $220,000 annually. About 30% of current fare revenue, or $125,200 per year, is collected from resorts that pay fares for their employees. The proposal for free transit asks for a continued commitment from the resorts to maintain the same level of funding. 

TART expects to see cost savings of $10,000 to $12,000 per year due to not having to administer cash collection, accounting and security, though riders will still be counted for tracking purposes. 

Placer County has a long-standing commitment to allocating transient occupancy tax revenue to transit. While transit service has been expanded due to the board’s prioritization in the 2016 TART Systems Plan - including increases in ridership, routes and frequency - North Lake Tahoe continues to fall behind peer mountain resort destinations in providing free-to-the-rider transit. The pilot meets standards visitors expect and furthers the region’s competitive edge with other mountain resort areas. 

In order to achieve consistency with free transit service provided within the Town of Truckee, the program would extend the service to Highway 89 and Highway 267 routes within the town boundaries. Truckee has proposed to pay Placer County for those fares, estimated at $21,000.

The Truckee Tahoe Airport District has also expressed interest in assisting TART with implementing a free transit program. With the board’s approval today, Placer County will work with those partners to develop funding agreements, expected to be voted on by their boards before the end of the year.

Ahead of today’s meeting, Placer received letters of support for the pilot from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency as well as the League to Save Lake Tahoe. 

In cooperation with local transportation and business community partners, Placer has recently supported a series of public transit pilot projects and alternative transportation options aimed at reducing congestion and getting people out of their cars by encouraging alternative modes of transportation, such as local transit and biking. 

The Board of Supervisors is expected to take a vote on this proposal as early as December 2019 in order to launch the free transit service this winter.