Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Inland Mendocino County’s Outlying Communities: Check Out the Plans to Enhance Public Transit


The Mendocino Council of Governments held a Rural Mobility Solutions Virtual Public Meeting on June 27, 2023 reviewing what the residents of inland Mendocino said were their transportation needs.

For those interested in learning about options for future public transit routes and needs, or if you would like to voice an opinion or ask questions of MTA management, please come to the Community Workshop on July 27 at 4:30 pm at Bartlett Hall, Ukiah Senior Center. This workshop will be focused on a five-year Short Range Transit Plan. It will look at things the MTA is doing right, can improve on, or is weak at. RSVP here.

The Mendocino Council of Governments, MCOG, is the regional transit planning agency for the Mendocino County region. MCOG announced the results of a transit planning study to find mobility solutions for five rural areas in Mendocino County that are underserved by Mendocino Transit Authority. 

Heather Menninger of AMMA Transit Planning Inc. facilitated the public meeting and presented the slides. This project was launched with a grant from CalTrans.

This study focused on rural communities along the Highway 101 corridor that lack adequate public transportation: Covelo, Laytonville, Brooktrails, Potter Valley, and Hopland. These communities are difficult to serve, with small populations, and long distances to travel over challenging terrain. There are other underserved areas of the county, but this study was limited to the five named communities. Here is a link to the full study description on the MCOG website.

MCOG seeks innovative solutions to long-standing transit issues. The study identified community needs with a bottom-up approach. What is “innovative” in public transit? The language in the grant offering provides examples: “vehicle sharing programs like MioCar, micro-transit options, technology-enabled mobility-on-demand options, clean energy/electric vehicle options, etc.” MCOG focused on innovative as meaning other than typical transit services. After the consultants’ investigation of several options, no real practical, innovative, solutions emerged. For example, current technology has not yet produced electric buses that have the range needed for round trips from Ukiah to Covelo or to the Coast. 

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Rural needs are for long trips, but with a small number of rides. This is not the sole responsibility of the MTA. According to the presentation, it is likely that MTA simply cannot meet all of the region’s transit needs. Other agencies (such as social service agencies) may also provide transit services for their clients. In a follow-up call Jacob King, Executive Director of MTA, remarked that MTA has always wanted to expand to the rural areas. MTA used to have service to Laytonville and Covelo, but ridership declined. 

In August 2022, in-person stakeholder meetings led to a transportation needs assessment and solution feasibility analysis, and a rural mobility action plan. The needs assessment looked at community preferences. How will people support and use the services? What rural trip needs exist?

The Needs of the Five Communities

Laytonville and Covelo are the most remote of the five communities. Most potential users need to get to Ukiah for shopping and medical care. Ob-gyn medical care is not available in the rural areas, patients need to travel to Ukiah.

Potter Valley is similar to Laytonville and Covelo, but with fewer services. Potter Valley has no grocery store, other than a convenience store.

Brooktrails is connected to Willits through a single roadway that is not safe to walk or bike on. Most respondents in Brooktrails said they need to get to Willits.

Hopland is both a residential community and a work destination, with commuters needing to get to work in Hopland or Ukiah. During Covid, MTA trips between Ukiah and Hopland were greatly reduced. There is a need for transportation to and from Hopland.

Across the entire county, students need to get to Mendo College in Ukiah.
Some survey respondents expressed the need to travel to Santa Rosa for medical appointments.

Solutions were tested in an e-survey with 270 participants in October 2022. Several potential mobility options were surveyed.

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  • Shuttles
  • Mileage reimbursement
  • Ride shares
  • Expansion of existing services

Covelo, Laytonville, and Potter Valley respondents preferred a shuttle. Brooktrails respondents wanted expanded Dial-a-Ride and existing bus service. Hopland respondents expressed a mixture of needs. 

Volunteer drivers and community rideshare were not the preferred solutions, but they did offer options. They meet needs and are eligible for funding. App based car share was not a preferred option, and is not feasible. After the meeting, a rep from MCOG explained the concept of car sharing: “Where vehicles are rented by the hour or day. It was not feasible due to a variety of reasons, including safety and security of vehicles stored at a remote location.” There have been some trial municipal transit car sharing programs attempted (for example, Zip Car with the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority), but it hasn’t been widely successful. The Los Angeles Metro partners with some car share companies, but it appears that Metro simply offers space in certain Metro parking lots for the car shares to operate.

Some respondents expressed a preference for a Ukiah-Hopland vanpool. Unfortunately, this is prohibitively expensive and no funding is currently available.

In formulating the vision for solutions, the needs of more densely populated areas must be balanced with the needs of the more rural areas. 56% of the county population lives within 1.5 miles of an MTA bus stop. The focus of this study is finding a solution for those not served by MTA. Public transit’s traditional mission is to serve densely populated areas.

There are diverse needs in all five communities. Finding funding and identifying leadership has been difficult. There are a variety of rural community organizations but they do not focus on transportation. MTA, MCOG, and community-based organizations will need to work together on providing transit.

Suggestion for a two-part package of lifeline services 

In Laytonville and Covelo, a hybrid Dial-a-Ride was proposed, with both scheduled pickups and a central stop in town. The driver would drop people off in Ukiah at their various appointments, and then pick them up afterward. The key to Dial-a-Ride is that it overcomes many barriers that people have to using rural buses. The hybrid dial-a-ride provides confirmation that riders will get back home.

The Potter Valley Youth and Community Center has an existing community vehicle not being currently used. This proposed program would fund insurance and gas. Potter Valley could start with this and switch to hybrid Dial-a-Ride later.

In Brooktrails consider starting a two-day-a-week MTA route from Brooktrails to Willits 
Hopland is served by MTA route 65 only once per day each direction. The recommendation is for more round trips to Hopland.

The second part of the plan addresses other mobility programs. It was suggested that the County begin a mileage reimbursement for private drivers. A family member or neighbor could give someone a ride and have their gas money reimbursed. For younger adults, create a community electronic ride board for ride sharing.

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These ideas need to be promoted to the community. Medical and Senior Dial-a-Ride services exist, but many are unaware they exist. 

Who can operate and administer these services?

Option A – MTA would operate the service, given their experience. MTA would operate the hybrid Dial-a-Ride. Family Resource Network, would teach people how to plan their rides and appointments. MTA would use a short range transit plan.
Option B – MTA would contract with selected services, such as senior centers and other community based services. 
Option C – Designate and create a Rural Consolidated Transportations Services Agency, CTSA. Dedicate up to 5% of local transportation funds to rural services (this 5% would be taken out of MTA’s budget). The new CTSA would operate and administer services. This option is not considered feasible, only to be used as a last resort. Options A and B are preferable.

This would be funded using FTA 5310 money. The grant application opening was June 14. MCOG would provide oversight through county social services’ Transportation Advisory Council. 43% more funding would be added from the Infrastructure Bill. Caltrans grants would also be used.

From the Federal Transit Administration Website, an explanation of 5310 funding. This program (49 U.S.C. 5310) provides formula funding to states for the purpose of assisting private nonprofit groups in meeting the transportation needs of older adults and people with disabilities when the transportation service provided is unavailable, insufficient, or inappropriate to meeting these needs. Funds are apportioned based on each state’s share of the population for these two groups. Formula funds are apportioned to direct recipients; for rural and small urban areas, this is the state Department of Transportation, while in large urban areas, a designated recipient is chosen by the governor. Direct recipients have flexibility in how they select subrecipient projects for funding, but their decision process must be clearly noted in a state/program management plan. The selection process may be formula-based, competitive or discretionary, and subrecipients can include states or local government authorities, private non-profit organizations, and/or operators of public transportation.

The Next Three Years

The plan for the next three years is: 

  • First-year – acquire vehicles, establish Operations and Marketing Plans, and secure funding. 
  • Second year – implement hybrid Dial-a-Ride one day per week shuttle for Covelo and Laytonville, start using the Potter Valley vehicle, add MTA routes to Brooktrails and Hopland, implement countywide volunteer driver mileage reimbursement for rural residents, implement Community Ride Boards, and promote existing transportation services. 
  • Third Year – Monitor ridership, implement Potter Valley hybrid Dial-a-Ride shuttle, expand other Dial-a-Ride services as performance and funding support during the third year. Monitor and adjust programs as indicated. 

The envisioned leadership roles for the agencies are:

MCOG – The Social Services Transportation Advisory Committee, SSTAC, is an advisory to the MCOG. SSTAC would monitor the Rural Mobility Vision. MCOG would apply for and allocate local transportation funding and pursue other rural funding sources. 
MTA – Would operate and contract for vehicle-based services.
Community Organizations – Promote, market and educate the community. Oversee mileage reimbursement and ride board programs.
The MCOG Board will consider these recommendations at their August 14, 2023 meeting.

Questions and comments from the audience
Q: Is this more geared to the health needs of older individuals?
A: Hybrid Dial-a-Ride Shuttle would be available for any trip. Only one day per week, with 8 to 10 passengers, wheelchair accessible.
Comment: It was stated that there is an unmet need for perinatal and ob-gyn care. Adolescent health needs are also unmet. Dr. Coren and Senior Public Health Nurses are working on transportation issues. They have transportation vouchers available. This will take coordination between the health clinics and the transportation agency.
Q: When you apply for a dollar amount, how confident are you that you will get that grant?
A: It is highly likely that 5310 funds are available for seniors.
Comment: I appreciate the work done over the past year. Our network of 8 Family Resource Centers is spread throughout the county. What was presented here makes sense.
Comment: Transportation has always been difficult in Potter Valley. Dial-a-Ride would be amazing.
Jacob King, MTA Comment: The MTA perspective is that no decisions have been made. No plans have been made. 
Q: Do you think Covelo needs a Dial-a-Ride?
King: We need to find funding. But there are no plans in the works.
Q: Is the funding for short-range plans or more trips from MTA to Hopland? Would 5310 funding be for MTA?
A: 5310 funding is only for older adults and mileage reimbursements.
Q: How do we increase trips from Hopland to Ukiah? Is this not eligible for funding?
A: Short Range Transit Planning is looking at reinstating service that MTA provided in the past that was shut down for Covid. There’s no new money. There is an overall shortage of funding for transit operations. 5310 is federal funding, specifically for elderly and disabled. All the routes will be reviewed at the upcoming Short Range Transit Planning Workshop July 27 at 4:30 pm at the Ukiah Senior Center. Recommendations will come out of that to expand Hopland routes.
Comment by Saprina Rodrigues: There is an issue with access to transportation in Brooktrails. I serve on the MTA board. The pot of money isn’t going to increase. We will have to make cost saving cuts at MTA.
A:  There are tools to balance the more rural communities.

Follow Up Conversation with Jacob King, Executive Director, MTA 

King provided follow up comments after the meeting. MCOG is the Rural Transit Planning Authority, under the Transit Development Act. A transit agency in California must meet certain metrics. Most funding for transit in California comes from the State. MCOG assists MTA with planning and funding of transit in Mendocino County.

Some things the public might not be aware of: 

  • There are fixed routes throughout Mendocino County. MTA provides service to the Coast.
  • Dial-a-Ridein Ft. Bragg is open to all in Ft. Bragg, not only seniors and disabled. 
  • Ukiah Dial-a-Ride is only available for seniors and disabled. If you are a senior who babysits grandchildren, you may bring them on the Dial-a-Ride. Ukiah Dial-a-Ride covers most of Redwood Valley as well as Ukiah.
  • MTA buses have the same filtration systems as airplanes. They are sanitized three times per day, with an electrostatic system that kills viruses.
  • It has been challenging to hire drivers since the pandemic.

The latest concept in public transportation is Micro Transit (explained on SAE’s website). A form of micro transit was attempted in Laytonville from 2009 to 2014, but was discontinued because it was not succeeding. It may succeed in the future in a different form.
Will the Infrastructure Bill help fund regional transit? The bill is mainly for capital improvements, such as vehicles and transit centers, with emphasis on replacing aging fleets with zero-emission vehicles. Zero emissions vehicles are possible on Covelo routes, if riders are willing to transfer in Willits. The AMMA study focused on trips without transfers.

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Monica Huettl
Monica Huettl
Mendocino County Resident, Annoying Horse Girl.

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