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Vine bus maintenance yard

The Napa Valley Transportation is hoping to begin building a bus maintenance yard in the airport industrial area this fall, if it can stitch together the $32 million needed for construction.

Napa County transportation leaders are debating whether to use $4.1 million targeted for Soscol Junction and the city of Napa’s Silverado Trail roundabouts project to help pay for a $37 million bus maintenance yard.

It doesn’t appear to be an either-or proposition. Napa Valley Transportation Authority officials expressed confidence they can in short order find other money to help pay for the highway projects.

Still, take highway funds from highway projects for a new bus yard? Some members of the Napa Valley Transportation Authority (NVTA) Board of Directors balked at the idea.

County Supervisor and NVTA Board Member Belia Ramos said doing so would be a disservice to everyone who complains about congested Highway 29 intersections with unfunded projects. Nor did she want to divert money to a bus maintenance yard she said the agency truly doesn’t have the money to build and perhaps should be smaller.

“For me, highway funds are absolutely not on the table,” Ramos said emphatically at the Feb. 20 NVTA Board of Directors meeting.

NVTA Executive Director Kate Miller said a larger bus maintenance yard is needed and will be ready to start construction by year’s end. The two highway projects are not shovel-ready and the redirected money can be backfilled by seeking state and federal money.

The alternative funding method for the bus maintenance yard is having the agency borrow more money than she recommends, Miller said. Delays building the yard could cost an extra $2.4 million per year because of rising construction costs and other factors. The yard has already been downsized from the original plan.

“We’re trying to share with you what the difficult compromise is, what some options are to sort of mitigate those compromises and then to just ask for your direction,” Miller told board members.

NVTA board members failed to quickly resolve the situation on Feb. 20. They could try again on March 20.

“We did always know there would be a (funding) gap,” NVTA Chair and Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said. “The question was how do we manage that gap in the future. The future is here right now.”

The NVTA’s maintenance yard for Vine buses is located at the intersection of Soscol Avenue and Jackson Street in the city of Napa. Transportation officials say the two-acre site is too small for the fleet and has too few service bays, among other shortcomings.

In 2016, the agency bought eight acres along Sheehy Court in the airport industrial area for a new, bigger bus yard. Now it is preparing to proceed with the $32 million construction phase.

The more cash the NVTA can find for the project, the less it has to borrow. But finding grants hasn’t been easy.

“Maintenance facilities are just not something that people find sexy,” Miller said. “There are just not that many organizations out there funding opportunities to fund a maintenance facility. Yet it’s a critical component to an efficient transit system.”

Using the $4.1 million in highway funds would keep the needed loan at a manageable level, she said. An agency report put the loan amount under this scenario at $16.5 million.

But those highway funds could go to Soscol Junction, a $35 million-to-$40 million project to ease traffic snarls at the signalized intersection of Highway 29 and Highway 221 near the Grapecrusher statue. They could go to Silverado Trail/Highway 121 roundabouts, an $8.5 million project to ease traffic snarls at the five-way intersection at Third Street in Napa.

The NVTA has a policy of using highway funds strictly for highway projects, not projects that while not on a highway could still help ease highway congestion. Using the money for the bus maintenance yard would mean making an exception.

Ramos noted the agency wouldn’t make an exception about a year ago to use highway money to complete Devlin Road because it is not a highway, even though a completed Devlin Road is to provide a Highway 29 reliever route through the airport industrial area.

County Supervisor and NVTA Board Member Alfredo Pedroza wanted more detail on what type of debt the agency can afford to take on.

“I don’t think we should be fearful of debt if debt is cheap and makes financial sense, so that way it doesn’t compromise some of the (highway) projects,” Pedroza said.

Miller said the Vine bus service has $1 million annually in surplus that could be used for debt payment. But she doesn’t recommend going near to that ceiling, for fear that an economic downturn could result in layoffs and service reduction.

NVTA staff is confident it can find other money for the Soscol Junction and Silverado Trail roundabouts projects, an agency report said. Miller later called Soscol Junction probably the easiest project in Napa Valley to find money for.

Bus ridership has fallen in recent years, most recently by 9.6 percent for the first quarter of 2018-19. But Miller said the Vine service is important.

“We serve a million riders a year and the express bus service is growing and we can’t continue to support it without having a decent maintenance facility,” Miller said.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.