Calistoga's Employee Shuttle Program (copy) (copy)

Calistoga’s Employee Shuttle Program used coach buses to transport employees who live in Santa Rosa to drop-off points in Calistoga. The program was suspended in early August after only three employees used the service over two months.

CALISTOGA — An innovative shuttle service to transport workers from Santa Rosa to jobs in Calistoga has been discontinued after failing to attract riders.

Supporters pulled the plug in early August after the shuttle managed to attract only three riders during its two-month existence.

“It’s suspended, said Chris Canning, executive director of the chamber, who held out hope that it could be resurrected.

Canning, who is also Calistoga’s mayor, worked with Calistoga businesses and employees to develop the Employee Shuttle Program, which kicked off on June 13. The bus was intended to ferry employees from stops in Santa Rosa to Calistoga for work.

Even after the shuttle was offered to employees for free, ridership never took off. Initially, shuttle rides were $7.50 each trip to both employees and employers, but no more than three employees took advantage of the service.

“There needs to be more employee participation and employer support” before it resumes, Canning said.

The experiment was funded by the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce, but Canning declined to say exactly what it cost.

The concept was borrowed from Silicon Valley where tech companies provide employee shuttles.

The shuttle ended just as St. Helena’s Chamber of Commerce was considering whether its businesses could benefit by participating. Like Calistoga, St. Helena is plagued by high housing costs, making it difficult for middle-level managers and line-level employees to find a place to live near where they work, said Pam Simpson, executive director.

“St. Helena is very interested in seeing how the Calistoga shuttle program goes,” Simpson said. “We have invited St. Helena businesses to meet with the Calistoga Chamber to see if (Calistoga’s) shuttle could be rerouted for St. Helena’s use.”

Simpson said she is also speaking with the Napa Valley Transportation Authority to expand VINE buses. St. Helena has a lot of employees who ride the VINE from their Napa homes to work, but unless the employer’s business is located near bus stops on Main Street, employees have no way of getting to jobs at places such as St. Helena Hospital.

Getting people out of their cars and on to a bus will help alleviate traffic that clogs up Main Street daily. But getting people to give up their cars is asking for a mindset change, too, she said.

People are afraid of being stuck at work without means of transportation in case of an emergency, or adhering to a restrictive schedule that might be inconvenient. There are plenty of jobs in Napa where more affordable housing can be found locally and in such nearby cities as American Canyon, Vallejo and Fairfield, she said.

The shuttle program was targeted at commuters and those who might not have a car at all, or were sharing a vehicle with a family member, Canning said in previous interviews.

Looking into the future, Calistoga businesses are also concerned about employee retention when two new high-end resorts open up. Already anecdotal stories are told of one restaurant desperate to hire dishwashers raising its hourly wage, causing another restaurant to lose its staff to the highest bidder.

The Santa Rosa job market is healthy, giving residents there no real incentive to make the commute to Calistoga or St. Helena, Canning said.

The onus is on employers to give employees incentives to take a job in these Upvalley cities, Simpson said. Because of the unemployment rates in the two cities, a shuttle program is a great retention tool.

“We are seeing the crunch. Everybody here has jobs open. But it feels like a statewide issue, not just our valley,” Simpson said.

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