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Thoughts on Transit

The Cross Country Local on Transit Deserts: Part 1

by William Freedman / December 14, 2015

I write this from a hotel room in Sacramento, one travel day away from the end of the Cross-Country Local. It’s Sunday and not all the buses are running so I’m watching the Broncos trying to hold the Raiders, nursing a case of sciatica that invaded my left hip in Reno, and reflecting on the successes and failures of this journey across America relying only on local and regional transit.

And, overall, the successes outweigh the failures. Still, there are holes in the map, and they merit some examination.

Let’s be clear. If I were to subscribe to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s strict definition of “transit,” this would’ve either involved a lot more backpack trekking or been a very short trip. I’ve had to expand the definition to include non-national intercity bus companies, shuttles, and casino buses. Even so, some places just couldn’t be traversed without a ticket on Amtrak, a ticket on Greyhound or an abundance of what behavioral scientists who work with rats call “maze brightness”. Fortunately, I have the third.

(Another three-pointer after first-and-goal! Really?)

You’ve heard of food deserts, areas where it’s difficult for local residents to access nutritious food at a reasonable price. I submit to you that there are also transit deserts. If you, for instance, live in St. Clairsville, Ohio, and you need to see a gerontologist in Cambridge, you’d better have family living close by.

So let’s take a look at the transit deserts I’ve encountered in the past two months, and how the Cross-Country Local got through. In consonance with human memory, we’ll consider them in reverse chronological order.

(If the pain is caused by a herniated disc, why does it shoot all the way down to my ankle? I’m getting too old for this.)

Lake Tahoe to Sacramento, California

There’s a train service called the Capitol Corridor, the main purpose of which is to link the Bay Area and Silicon Valley with the Sacramento region. It’s fed by affiliated bus routes to communities all around Lake Tahoe. According to its brochures and web site, the CC is run by a governmental body with the Orwellian name of the Joint Powers Authority. But it’s really just Amtrak. It’s the California Zephyr, which actually starts in Chicago. The whole point of the Cross-Country Local was to see if I could avoid national carriers. (Yes, Amtrak has scheduled bus routes. Who knew?)

So I found myself at the “Y” in South Lake Tahoe with no way forward without breaking the rules, and I didn’t make it all the way to California to take the easy way out now. But I still had a few options. Plan A was actually to trek down U.S. Route 50 to Pollock Pines, where I could pick up El Dorado Transit bus, which connects to the Sacramento Regional Transit light rail. That meant a 43-mile hike with a backpack, pitching a tent in the snow at least once, probably twice, possibly three times. My Plan B was to rely on the good offices of local community boosters; more on that later, but let’s just say Friday afternoon isn’t the best time to ask people for a favor.

There was no Plan C.

But I’d been documenting the Cross-Country Local’s progress on Periscope.tv, a live-streaming app, and one of my followers suggested Craigslist. Hmm. On the one hand, Craigslist is worldwide but, on the other hand, it’s designed to be hyper-local; in fact, Craigslist limits the number of areas in which you can post the same ad. So I called for a ride in the Reno and “Gold Country” areas. In short order I had five lift offers from which to choose (and one obnoxious troll – less said the better). I was in Sacramento for lunch Saturday. My rideshare driver also told me that, had I just stepped out onto the shoulder of Route 50 and stuck out my thumb, I’d have gotten a lift in minutes. The Tahoe community is well aware of its transit dearth, a sizeable number of people have had to hitchhike into or out of the region, and are more than willing to pay it forward.

Pinal County, Arizona

Tucson has surprisingly good transit, and so does the Valley of the Sun, as locals call the Phoenix metro area. But there’s that part in between.

It’s called Pinal County, and to say that transit is an afterthought there is to be kind. There’s a shuttle between the Arizona State University satellite campus and the nearby town. The Ak-Chin tribe has paratransit mostly for its elderly population. If you go on Pinal County’s website and click the “Alternative Transportation” tab, you’ll see a picture of a guy standing next to a golf cart. I’m not joking. I guess their idea of mass transit is two guys and a golf cart.

And that’s why there’s no regularly scheduled local bus or light rail between the Valley and Tucson even though any cursory glance at a map of Arizona will tell you there ought to be. I could find no way across until something popped up at me off that map.

There’s a Harrah’s resort in Maricopa, and it runs one “fun bus” roughly 40 miles down to Tucson and another the rest of the way – about 25 miles – up to the Valley. My plan was to ride to Harrah’s on the first one, stay the night, then take the other bus the rest of the way into the Phoenix area. The cost? Nothing. In fact, Harrah’s would give me $10 of casino credit.

And it all went very well … up to a point. I got on the bus from Tucson, had a nice buffet, stayed in a gorgeous room, played some slots, then asked about the bus to the Valley. I was informed by someone at the Harrah’s guest services counter that I’m not the first person to think of this, they’re not in the local bus business, and they would not put me on the Phoenix bus. So it looked like I was stuck in Maricopa.

As luck would have it, my best friend from growing up in Pennsylvania now lives in the San Tan Valley, at the northern edge of Pinal County. He asked his wife to pick me up and, after a couple days’ visit, she also dropped me off at the end of the Valley Metro transit line.

But that goes beyond luck and into the realm of divine intervention. If I were overdrawn at the karma bank, could I have managed?

Yes, I think I could. First of all, it was only a one-day hike to the northernmost resort in Pinal County, where I could spend the night, then hike another five miles the following morning to the nearest Valley Metro stop.

Also, when the lady from Harrah’s told me her company isn’t in the bus business, she’s entirely correct. It contracts out to a regional firm called All Aboard America, so the guy who’s actually driving the bus couldn’t care less. If I walked up to the Phoenix bus as it was boarding, I’m 90% sure I’d have been allowed to board as a walk-on. All Harrah’s could do is keep me from making a reservation.

Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Tucson, Arizona

This is the one that really worried me. New Mexico has some great mass transit – or so I’m told. It’s all up north around Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Las Cruces’ buses can pick you up in El Paso, Texas, but they can’t get you any farther west than the airport.

I was confident that I could piece together rideshares and tour buses around the endpoints, but there was still 90 miles in the middle – Lordsburg, N.M., to Wilcox, Ariz. – that was nothing but asphalt and ghost towns. A four-day hike with limited access to water was a higher price than I was prepared to pay.

Fortunately, I found the answer before I got to Las Cruces. In El Paso, just a block north of the Mexican border, I found a depot and corporate headquarters for a regional intercity bus company called Los Paisanos, Spanish for “The Countrymen”. It primarily serves the Mexican-American community – the operating language is Spanish – through much of the southwest quadrant of the United States, and it runs a route from El Paso to Tucson. In fact, I could’ve stayed on the bus and gone all the way to Los Angeles. That would’ve completed the Cross-Country Local according to the rules, but contrary to the spirit.

To be continued in the blog article Transit Deserts: Part 2...

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