Above: Melissa Gonzalez, Mecca resident, endures an hour and a half bus ride to get from her home at St. Anthony’s Mobile Home Park to the College of the Desert campus in Indio, Calif. (Image: Nicolas Rodriguez / Coachella Unincorporated)
By Johnny Flores, Christian Mendez, Paulina Rojas and Amber Amaya
NORTH SHORE, Calif. — For residents of North Shore, getting around on public transportation can be tough. There is only one bus line serving the city, located about 20 miles south of Coachella, and it comes only once every three hours.
That means long waits in often searing temperatures for things like trips to the grocery store, community college, or the doctor’s office.
North Shore, named for its location on the northeast shore of the Salton Sea, was once a popular tourist destination. Today, with all of the tourism gone, working-class Latinos account for an overwhelming majority of the town’s 3,500 residents.
Many of these working-class families only have one car that they use to get to work. Because of this, the rest of the family is often stranded at home and must rely on public transportation to travel outside the city.
Violeta Lopez moved to North Shore 10 years ago. She said community members of all ages rely heavily on the public transportation.
“I leave the community to go outside of North Shore to look for work because the internet here does not work well, and I need to find employment,” Lopez said. “[The bus] is definitely used a lot, especially by students who go do homework after school in Indio.” Including wait times, the bus trip to Indio, which is about 25 miles, can average around an hour to two hours.
Lopez said she waits for the bus across the street from Reyes Market in North Shore. She tries to arrive at the bus stop 10 minutes early because she is afraid of missing the bus to Coachella, where she does much of her shopping. On the return trip, Lopez tries to be even earlier. More than once, she noted, she’s been left waiting with bags of groceries wilting in the heat.
Until a few years ago, the SunLine Transit Agency, the public transit operator in the Coachella Valley, operated only one bus route in the easternmost part of the Coachella Valley, Line 91, which serviced the area from Indio to Mecca. But after pressure by North Shore residents and several community-based organizations, SunLine extended its service by adding an additional line, Line 95. It is currently the only bus route serving North Shore.
Karen Borja is the associate director of Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC), a faith-based group that first began organizing for equitable transportation in North Shore in 2012. She says that before the extension, North Shore residents had to drive almost an hour to get anywhere, assuming they had access to a vehicle.
“When we first started our work … the top concern was the inability to go to doctors appointments, college classes, grocery stores, churches and jobs,” Borja said.
In response, North Shore residents began organizing protests in front of the SunLine headquarters located 40 miles north east in Thousand Palms. When the transit agency failed to act, ICUC took things a step further, holding meetings between local stakeholders, decision makers, funders and planners. They also reached out to residents directly, surveying more than 800 community members about their transportation needs.
The effort paid off, with SunLine agreeing to extend the line from Mecca to North Shore via Line 95. Still, the current schedule has the first westbound bus in North Shore at 5:20 am. The next bus doesn’t pull in until 8:53 am, according to Sunline’s online schedule.
Previously, Sunline has defended its sparse schedule by pointing to low ridership. But according to Norma Stevens, SunLine’s Transit Planning Manager, that is beginning to change.
“Based on ridership data, we’ve observed an increase in ridership on [Line 95],” Stevens said, adding that Sunline recently created additional early and late trips to the weekday services from North Shore.
Stevens also noted that since SunLine implemented weekend service to Line 95 in January, ridership on the line has increased by 41 percent, year to date.
“I met a gentleman at the Town Center transfer point … he works in Rancho Mirage and struggled on Saturdays to get to his work place,” said Stevens in an email. “He stated that being able to take the bus to work on Saturdays has lifted a huge weight off his shoulders.”
Though the extended schedule and weekend service comes as welcomed news to residents in the east valley, community organizers say additional challenges remain, including accessibility.
Borja said infrastructure is desperately needed in the eastern Coachella Valley because many residents in North Shore walk a mile in the dirt and desert just to reach the nearest bus stop.
Even though Line 95 offers deviated service, meaning North Shore residents who live far from the closest bus stop can call SunLine to be picked up and dropped off, very few residents even know the service exists.
“I haven’t heard of anyone using the service,” said Borja. Last year, ICUC counted 119 homes near Vandeer Veer Road in North Shore that were located at least a mile away from the closest bus stop. Borja said she has seen mostly elderly people and mothers with children doing those mile-long walks.
“If 119 people start calling SunLine to pick them up and drop them off, it’s going to get pricey,” said Borja. “We should be investing, as a community, in resources that look like sidewalks and walking paths for community members to access the bus.”
Eastern Coachella Valley students like Melissa Gonzalez, a freshman at College of the Desert, know firsthand the need for sidewalks and accessible bus stops. Gonzalez said she’s enrolled in classes at the COD Indio campus, located about 16 miles away from her home.
“I take the bus to go to school when my parents are working and I don’t have transportation,” Gonzalez said. “There’s no bus stops near my home….We need to put more [bus] stops in the communities that really need them.”
Gonzalez said she has to walk 10 to 15 minutes from her home and cross train tracks near Grapefruit Blvd to reach the nearest bus stop in front of the Mecca library, then it’s a hour and a half bus ride to the Indio COD campus.
“Boosting the disadvantage communities needs to be a top priority instead of just business as usual.”
— Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia
At the state level, there’s been a recent push for investment in infrastructure in rural disadvantaged communities, like the eastern Coachella Valley. Earlier this year, east valley residents, along with community organizations Lideres Campesinas, Konkuey Design Initiative The Leadership Council and ICUC organized a series of community meetings with Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) to give their input on Garcia’s proposed Assembly Bill 2332, that would, among other things, prioritize projects like walkways and bikeways that connect residents to community-identified transit stops and community services.
Garcia’s proposed bill, part of a larger transportation equity package that included bills from Assemblymembers Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) and Chris Holden, (D-Pasadena), was scheduled to be heard by the Assembly Transportation Commission in April, however, the hearing was canceled.
“When we began a dialogue about our bill, some people had concerns about the bill because [they believed] we are doing too much for disadvantaged communities,” said Garcia during a phone interview. “For some people, that was a concern because it was taking away from the traditional funding course.”
Garcia said he is now working with Jim Frazier, chair of the Transportation Committee, to incorporate parts of AB 2332 into the chairman’s AB 1591 to address transportation needs throughout the state.
“We’re trying to focus on those transportation needs; boosting the disadvantage communities’ needs to be a top priority instead of just business as usual,” said Garcia. “We know first hand how important these issues are to people in our community and to others throughout the state.”