Napa County transportation leaders are laying the financial groundwork to build a $40 million Vine Transit bus maintenance yard that they realize isn’t a star among planned transportation projects.
A star is the planned, $64 million Soscol Junction to ease traffic congestion at Highway 29 and Highway 221. A star is the Napa Valley Vine Trail — estimated future costs, $31 million — that someday is to run from Vallejo up Napa Valley to Calistoga.
But members of the Napa Valley Transportation Authority (NVTA) Board of Directors say spending money on the new maintenance yard will also benefit the community.
“This is not something that’s attractive, to invest in an operations maintenance yard,” Napa County Supervisor and NVTA Board Member Alfredo Pedroza said. “But it’s so necessary.”
Other NVTA board members agreed. Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said spending money on a new yard in the airport industrial area is a “necessary evil.”
“You have to have a facility to keep your fleet running,” he said.
The NVTA Board of Directors on Wednesday took steps to help finance the estimated $35.7 million construction phase that could begin in autumn, with more votes to come. The plan calls for using $10.7 million in grants and seeking a $20 million federal loan and $5 million bank loan.
“Not the easiest vote.… Someone will thank us someday for all the hard work,” Pedroza said.
Vine buses are kept at a 2-acre maintenance yard on Jackson Street next to Soscol Avenue in the heart of the city of Napa. NVTA Executive Director Kate Miller said this yard was meant for a smaller fleet.
The parking situation involves moving buses around to reach certain buses. There’s no room for employee parking. The administrative offices are in an old mobile unit. There are too few bus repair bays. The bus washer breaks down and is so old that new parts aren’t available, she said.
Those are among the reasons Miller said the Vine needs a new bus maintenance yard. The NVTA in 2016 brought 8 acres at Sheehy Court in the airport industrial area to be the new site.
Miller told the NVTA Board that the new facility will be expensive, but that public work projects tend to be that way.
The new facility is to have parking for 90 buses, a maintenance facility and a new bus wash. It is to have electric charging stations for the seven electric buses that the Vine has ordered so far.
Work on the maintenance yard project continues at a time when Vine ridership is plummeting, though that is true for many transit systems nationwide. People aren’t taking buses as much during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated stay-at-home orders.
Ridership for the city of Napa routes for October through December dropped 87% when compared to the previous year, from 100,670 to 12,654. Ridership for regional and express BART routes dropped 62%, from 143,290 to 54,615, according to an NVTA report.
Miller didn’t depict the pandemic as the death knell for transit. Rather, she talked about the opportunity to be creative as ridership returns and someday having a transit system that serves everyone, instead of largely the transit-dependent.
“I think we can do that if we make it convenient and make it very Napa-esque in our approach,” she told the board.
This is a good time to build the new maintenance yard. The project will create needed jobs, interest rates are low and the bid environment is good, Miller said.
Debt service for the proposed loans could be about $840,000 to $890,000 annually through 2057, an NVTA report said. Board members said they are confident this is something the agency can take on, even if things don’t go as planned.
“Before anything horrible happened, there would be some flexibility in us being able to refinance the loan in a way that makes it easier for us to make the repayment,” Miller said.
Although the project is an estimated $40 million, the amount could come to $46 million including interest on the loans, an agency report said. Money to repay the loans is to come from bus farebox revenues and local transportation money from the state’s general sales tax.
The NVTA has worked on building a new bus maintenance yard for eight years. The finish line appears to be in sight. Nobody spoke during public comments at Wednesday’s meeting to either object to or praise the project, though there will be other chances.
“I can’t emphasize enough the community benefits from the Vine transit system,” Miller said.
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