Local bus offers savings, and scenery; free rides Tuesdays in Oct.

Virginia Graziani

Redwood Times

Maybe there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but there are free rides - on the local Southern Humboldt Transit bus every Tuesday in October.

By offering free bus rides from Garberville to Miranda and back and all the stops in between, the Humboldt Transit Authority, which operates the bus, hopes to attract enough additional riders to meet requirements for federal funding for transit services in SoHum.

According to HTA director Greg Pratt, who met with Southern Humboldt Working Together last month (see related story in our Sept. 11 issue), it will take an average of five more riders per day to keep the local bus in service.

The intercity bus, which goes all the way to Eureka with stops along the way at Redway, Phillipsville, Miranda, Myers Flat, Weott, Rio Dell, Fortuna, and College of the Redwoods, is doing fine, but the local is still too close to call.

By a strange twist of fate, HTA’s free "Try It Tuesdays" came along just in time for relief from the cardiac-arrest-inducing surge of gas prices. It’s also lucky timing for this reporter whose car is in the shop after a close encounter of the worst kind with a deer near Dean Creek.

Since that unpleasant episode I’ve been taking the bus from the Healy Senior Center in Redway, just a short walk from my house, to the Redwood Times office on Melville Road in Garberville.

Last Tuesday morning I met two young men who also live in Redway and work in Garberville. One of them had a bicycle but said he was too tired to bike to town. The other one said he’d walked home last night and didn’t want to walk those three miles along Redwood Drive again.

Later that day I decided to ride the entire route and talk to all the other riders to find out why they ride the bus, what they like, and what they’d like to see changed.

As I stood in the hot sun on Melville across from the office I spoke to a man from Phillipsville who said he was taking the bus because he’s been working on his car "for months." He likes the free WiFi on the bus, and he finds the schedule convenient. He’d like to have stops in more places, however.

The bus left Melville, which is the southernmost stop on the route, right on time at 1:35. We rolled down scenic Locust Street, passing the stop at Oak Street since no one was waiting, and picked up a third passenger alongside the Humboldt House Inn on Conger Street.

When I introduced myself to the new passenger, he said he was a reporter, too - Bruce McEwen from the Anderson Valley Advertiser. He showed me his genuine, official press pass issued by the Mendocino Sheriff’s office. I was envious.

McEwen has been riding the bus back and forth between Garberville and Redway, talking to people as part of his research for an article on "the industry," he explained. He’s writing this story as a freelancer, he went on, and hopes to sell it to a magazine. The local bus suits him fine just as it is.

In Redway we made a quick trip up West Coast Road to Redwoods Rural Health Center, where the driver must skillfully back it into the parking lot. No one got on or off this time.

The route then looped down Redway Drive, with stops at Empire, Whitmore, and Oak, and back up Briceland Road. At the Healy Center, my home stop, the driver paused for a full minute although there were no passengers to "run the clock down" rather than get too far ahead of schedule.

On other trips I’d noticed a small monitor right near the driver that lets him or her know exactly how many minutes and seconds he or she is behind schedule.

At the corner of Briceland Road and Redwood Drive, the bus stopped for a woman who said she was only going to Garberville, but since it was hot she didn’t want to wait for the return trip but would ride out to Miranda and back.

She told me that she doesn’t have a car. She likes the bus because it saves money compared to driving, but also because she likes riding through the forest to Miranda; "It’s a beautiful ride," she said.

We chatted all the way on 101 to the off-ramp at Sylvandale and then we sat back to savor the sunny fall afternoon. We got to Phillipsville at 2 p.m., where the first passenger disembarked, and then it was two of us enjoying the ride to Miranda. At 2:10 p.m. we stopped for a few minutes at the Miranda Market, where a South Fork student joined us.

The student laughed when I asked why she was taking the bus. "I don’t have a car - I don’t even have a license yet," she said. She likes the bus because it’s clean and convenient; this one arrives just as she’s finished with her last class. "I wouldn’t change anything," she told me.

Maybe I should have been sorry the student was the last passenger on that ride, but I appreciated the quiet ride back down the Avenue of the Giants. I do see a lot more while riding the bus, I realized, and not only because I don’t have to pay attention to the road. The windows are huge and sparkling clean, and perched a little higher than in a car - at least higher than in my Honda Civic - I can look right down at the hillside, the river, and people’s gardens.

We returned to Melville at 2:34 p.m., so I had 12 minutes to interview the driver, Elli Bosquez, before the bus left again at 2:46 p.m.

Bosquez has been driving for HTA for 13 years and has been on the Southern Humboldt Transit line for the past six months. His regular shift is 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.

"You meet an interesting array of folks, people who have done all kinds of things," Bosquez said. People from all over the world have ridden his bus. In SoHum recently he’s driven a small group of tourists from Holland, and an Australian who took the bus between the Dean Creek Resort and Garberville for several days.

The low ridership on this trip is typical, especially for mid-day, Bosquez noted, but in general he’s had more riders in the last few days since gas prices soared.

"We have an excellent group of drivers," Bosquez said. "You’re in good hands." HTA hires vets and has a strict no-drug policy. There’s low turnover among the drivers, with most of them working until retirement, he added.

Drivers will pick up passengers who wave to them between the regular scheduled stops if they’re standing in a place that’s safe for the bus to pull over, he explained, but he won’t stop if there’s not enough room for him to maneuver safely, or if he doesn’t see people in time.

Visibility is important. If you’re wearing dark clothes at night, you probably won’t get picked up.

Sometimes discouraged hitchhikers see the bus coming and decide to flag it down. "That may or may not work," Bosquez said. It all depends where they are standing, especially if they’re at a highway on- or off-ramp. "Safety always comes first."

Service animals are allowed to ride on the bus. Drivers can ask if an animal is a service animal and what kind of service it performs, but they can’t require proof like a special harness or papers, Bosquez said.

Sometimes people claim an animal as a "companion" or "guard dog" but that’s not the same thing as a service animal, and he hopes people will not take advantage of the system, because it can be dangerous.

One time he admitted a questionable dog on board, and it attacked a blind woman’s guide dog. The owner of the first dog claimed the blind woman should have had better control of her animal.

Another time he felt confident turning away an alleged service animal - a boa constrictor. "I told the owner that I’m deathly afraid of snakes, and I would go crazy if he brought a boa constrictor on board," Bosquez said.

Asked for advice to riders, Bosquez replied, "Be visible, especially if it’s dark or raining. And lots of people don’t realize that the times on the schedule are departure times, so get there a few minutes early. If the bus is supposed to leave at 2:46 and you arrive at 2:46, you’ll see my tail lights."

As a matter of fact, it was just 2:46 as he spoke, so I got off and let the next set of passengers embark.

HTA buses, both local and intercity, run on weekdays. The basic fare is $1.50 for the local and $5 for the intercity bus. Discounts are available for students and seniors, and you can also purchase a $20 card that gives you a further discount on each ride. Monthly passes are also available.

The full schedule can be found on HTA’s website at www.hta.org, or you can call them at 443-0826.

Anyone who’d like a free ride has three more chances to take advantage of "Try It Tuesday" this month. If gas prices stay high, if your car needs repair, if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, or if you’d rather watch the passing scene, work on your laptop, or snooze while you get from here to there, you’ll be glad you helped to keep public transit in Southern Humboldt.