For some people, the thought of taking a trip over-the-hill on Highway 17 is a jaw clenching, white knuckle experience.
But for the hundreds of people who take the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transportation District’s Highway 17 Express buses each day, the ride is rather relaxing, allowing them time get some work done as they head to and from the office using teh bus’s free WiFi internet service. Others, with their coolers and beach blankets, use it to get to the beach without worrying about traffic and parking.
At its meeting Friday, June 12, the Metro Board of Directors will learn how popular the route has become. In fiscal year, 2007-08, the Highway 17 Express served 218,000 riders. So far this year, that number jumped by 22 percent to 265,500 riders.
The route, which runs from 4:35 a.m. unitl 9:30 p.m. on weekdays and 6:40 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends, is so popular, sometimes more people are waiting to board the buses than they can handle.
“It usually happens on the weekends,” said Ciro Aguirre, Metro’s operations manager. “Quite a number of folks want to enjoy the sunshine. We also provide a lot of extra service on holidays and Fridays and Sundays when UC Santa Cruz is in session. The kids use the bus more.”
When that happens, or if a bus is running late because it's caught in traffic, another driver and coach are deployed. Aguirre credits the increase in ridership to high gas prices and people’s interest in slowing global warming and improving air quality.
The express buses seat up to 44 people, he said. Metro has 10 Highway 17 Express buses operating during peak hours, with five spare coaches waiting in the wings when times get tight, he added.
While Metro has been around for about 30 years, the Highway 17 Express route hit the road after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The quake damaged the highway, but people still needed to get to work. So, Metro bought the buses and hired an outside contractor to operate it, said Mary Ferrick, route supervisor.
The first Highway 17 bus was launched in March 1990. Nine years later, Metro took over operations for the route.
“We ran it using Metro drivers and kept expanding from there,” she said.
In 2004, Metro established an agreement with Amtrak to run its Amtrak Extension service from its trains to points around the county, she added.
Besides commuters, the bus is also popular among tourists and travelers.
Eric Gneckow, 22, of San Francisco, uses a combination of bicycle, CalTrain and Highway 17 Express to visit friends in Santa Cruz.
“I’m lucky to not have a car right now,” he said. “Driving is not as fun as riding a bike and taking public transit. It’s cheaper and you get to meet interesting people.”
With an $8 Highway 17 Express day or $90 monthly pass, riders get unlimited access to any Metro bus or Santa Clara Valley Transportation service, including Light Rail.
To make things easier for Santa Cruz County travelers, Metro had tried to expand the route to include a stop at the San Jose International Airport. But that idea was shot down by the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, in partnership with VTA, Metro, AMTRAK, and CalTrans, which run the service. It said there already is an existing service to the airport offered by VTA, so a second was not needed, Aguirre said.
Thus, Santa Cruz County residents will have to continue to use the express bus to downtown San Jose’s Light Rail service, before hopping on a free VTA airport shuttle at First Street and Metro Drive.
The Metro Board of Directors meet at 9 a.m. today at the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District office, 370 Encinal Street, Suite 100 in Santa Cruz. For information, visit www.scmtd.com.