RUTHERFORD – A viable solution to the county’s traffic congestion on Highway 29 remains elusive following a winery’s recent attempt to launch a commuter shuttle for its employees.
Cakebread Cellars ended its shuttle service for employees on Feb. 3 following a two-week trial run. The program encountered what has become a familiar pitfall — too few riders — for like-minded initiatives throughout the county in recent months.
“We had an all-employee meeting that same day and actually said, ‘It’s ending because we don’t have enough ridership to support the cost,’” said Cakebread Cellars’ Human Resources Manager Nicole Cummings.
Having solely funded the program for the two weeks of the trial run at a cost of $440 per day, the winery had sought to gauge its employees’ long-term interest in the program by initially offering the service for free. Partnering with Napa Valley Tours & Transportation, the shuttle ran twice daily from two locations in Napa and was available to employees hailing from the southern end of the county where the bulk of the winery’s workforce lives, Cummings said.
Available to a pool of more than 50 Cakebread employees, the shuttle was also offered to employees of neighboring wineries. By the end of the two-week test run, a total of 15 employees, all from Cakebread, had ridden at least once.
“And really that’s all I wanted was, ‘Come try it, ride it once, tell us what you think. Would you do this?’” Cummings said.
The project’s suspension mirrors the outcome of the Employee Shuttle Program in Calistoga, which ended six months prior. That initiative, which ferried employees between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, folded in early August after two months of operation, with only a handful of riders having made use of the shuttle. Initially offered at a cost of $7.50 per trip to riders, the Calistoga program ultimately was offered for free, but that did little to boost ridership.
In designing Cakebread’s program, Cummings said the goal was to eventually offer the shuttle for roughly $3 a day, but noted that for that price to be sustainable, a ridership of at least 50 was needed.
Early discussions of establishing a shuttle program began in September 2015 between Cakebread and neighboring wineries St. Supery and Opus One.
“All three CEOs tasked us with the concept of the Google bus idea,” explained Annie Waterson, human resources director at St. Supery, in a phone interview. Surveys were conducted to assess employee interest and around 40 percent of each winery’s employees expressed interest in a shuttle, she said.
The surveys also offered some insight as to why employees would not ride a shuttle if it were offered. Among the given reasons, Cummings said, were that employees “didn’t want to be dependent on somebody else, they want to have their car available to run errands, they go places after work … so it’s this behavior change that we have to impact.”
As the group’s research continued for more than a year, eventually St. Supery and Opus One withdrew from the project. The decision, Waterson said, was less influenced by the failure of the shuttle program in Calistoga and was “more about the change in the commute time over the eight, 10 months we’d been researching.”
“Also, is it a benefit for our employees?” said St. Supery CEO Emma Swain by phone last week. “The cost is very high for a very small number of people who actually take it.”
“In a nutshell, employer cost is high and the employee would have a daily cost in addition to maintaining their own vehicle,” Swain said.
Despite the program’s suspension, Cummings said she is currently investigating other ways Cakebread might offer commuter services for its employees. Potential alternatives may include vanpooling or the winery owning and operating its own shuttle.
Each option poses considerable drawbacks, however, as the estimated cost of a vanpool would fall between $130-$180 a month, Cummings said, and would ultimately result in a more costly ride for employees. Owning and operating it’s own shuttle would burden the winery with hefty liability and, Cummings said, “the insurance side would be enormous.”
Despite the numerous hurdles to a feasible program, Cummings stressed her intent to press on. “To me, this isn’t just a Cakebread problem or a St. Supery problem. This is an industry problem. I mean Highway 29 is not going to get bigger.”
The greater issue of mitigating commuter traffic continues to garner the attention of the county’s wine industry and various suggestions have been publicly aired, including recent speculation that the new owners of the Napa Valley Wine Train may consider offering a commuter service.
Swain noted the appeal of collaborating with the county to craft a commuter service geared toward winery employees. In particular, the VINE bus system, with its multiple stops and various running times, would be a worthwhile option to explore, she said.
“We’d love a solution, but I think that solution requires more participation with county transit and county employers.”
Napa Valley Transportation Authority spokesman Mike Blasky said that while there are no forthcoming plans to partner specifically with wineries, the county is currently seeking ways to improve its express bus service, with the shared interest of keeping more cars off the main highways.
Though a solution has yet to materialize, a number of wineries including St. Supery, neighboring Rutherford winery Nickel & Nickel, and more recently, Castello di Amorosa each currently offer benefits for employees who carpool to work.
But for Cummings, a longer-term solution to employee commutes remains the highest prize. “When you talk about recruiting, when you talk about the cost of gas, when you talk about economic challenges our county is facing with its roadways, with its mass transit, we have to do something different. We have to think outside of the box of just paying employees to get in cars and come together.”
“This is not a problem that’s going away. So how do we fix it?”