With gas prices hitting $4.13 for a gallon of unleaded regular Sunday in Placerville, the smart money is on taking the bus — El Dorado Transit offers myriad routes, packages and options for those tired of emptying their wallets at the pumps.
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On a recent morning, with gray clouds scudding across the sky as they were pushed by winds into releasing fat raindrops, it was a pleasure for a Mountain Democrat team to climb inside a warm, cozy commuter bus and see what it’s like to travel the most popular route enjoyed by El Dorado Transit riders.
Matt Mauk, transit services assistant, set up the journey, promising that the Democrat would get a taste of the convenience and comfort of leaving the driving to someone else.
Passengers gathered in a parking lot above Raley’s on Placerville Drive, off Armory Drive, just before 6 a.m., where they would leave their vehicles for the day as they headed to work in Sacramento.
Climbing the steps, passengers were met by the infectious smile of bus driver Paul Minton, who greeted his fares for the day. It was obvious many were well known to the driver, 29, who was born and raised locally, growing up in Shingle Springs.
As one woman set down her purse after extricating a novel and settling down to read under a soft, individual reading light, another passenger headed for the back of the bus, where he promptly sat down, placed his head against the plushly upholstered seat and fell asleep. It was apparent this likely is a daily routine for both.
Passenger Babara Ann Hubbard, 50, of Placerville said her reasons for taking El Dorado Transit’s big commuter bus to Sacramento each workday are simple.
“I love it — it’s relaxing, dependable and comfortable, especially in bad weather,” said the office manager for state Sen. Darrell Steinberg. “I was driving a Toyota Corolla up until two years ago, when I started taking the bus, and it was costing $490 a month,” Hubbard said.
Taking the bus cut that cost roughly in half, according to figures supplied by Mauk.
“Driving my own car was stressful,” Hubbard continued. “Every morning and every evening, merging onto the freeway — I would be cranky by the time I got to work and by the time I got home.”
As the commuter bus neared Shingle Springs, the chatter among the dozen or so passengers was subdued, with many working on computers. Outside, the rainwater sliding under the bus tires was the only audible sound.
At Shingle Springs, as daylight was edging the stormy sky, the bus pulled into a park-and-ride area and a dozen more passengers wended their way down the aisle of the bus, with chit-chat accenting their efforts at shutting umbrellas and shedding overcoats to take their seats.
“Hey, Peter,” said one man to a guy taking a perch across the aisle.
“Hi, John,” came the reply, and soon the conversation was all about politics, particularly the latest movements of the Tea Party, followed by what one of them had seen on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, to the runoff for the California state Assembly, ending up with abortion and the war in Afghanistan, all wrapped up by the time the bus swung into El Dorado Hills Town Center to gather up yet another group of Sacramento-bound riders.
Katrina Kimber, 45, of Pollock Pines, has been using El Dorado Transit for 16 years to get to her job at the state capital, where she works as an accounting manager for Caltrans.
“I began taking the bus in 1995,” said Kimber, who added that she parked her Jeep at the first pick-up spot in Placerville, should she need to battle snowfall on her way home that night.
“I do it for the cost savings, the convenience,” she added. “It’s so much less stressful.”
As the bus made its way on Highway 50 near Sunrise Boulevard, conversation dwindled and the riders fell into a companionable silence as the transit commuter flew past vehicles in the other lanes that were backed up for miles. The bus, of course, takes full advantage of the carpool lane and was hitting 65 mph as other drivers, pensive expressions on their faces, watched it go by.
When the bus reached Sunrise, a fender-bender accident was evident in the far right lane, snarling traffic there.
Leaving the navigating to a trained, expert bus driver obviously has its advantages.
Driver Minton smoothly headed for downtown as the bus took the 35th Street exit, with Minton calling out stops as the bus methodically emptied as folks found their way to work.
“Have a nice day,” Minton repeated several times, and smiles were on most faces as they melded into the sidewalk crowds of professionals bound for daily duties.
“You don’t have to worry about parking,” said Minton, as the final passenger got off the bus just past the Stanford Mansion and he took time to answer some questions. “That’s a really big deal down here,” he added as a sign told the story: “Parking lot full.”
Minton has driven for El Dorado Transit for three years and said he will remain with the company “for as long as they’ll let me.”
The commuter bus can carry 57 passengers; on this day the crowd numbered 44.
The briefcases, computers and overall polished, professional presence of those riding El Dorado Transit to get to work makes it clear: The smart money is on riding the bus.
E-mail Pat Lakey at email@example.com or call 530-344-5066.