June 26, 2008

Shuttle Riders Can Beat Skyrocketing Gas Prices

As commuters in and around Sahuarita have painfully discovered, the cost of driving to and from work in Tucson is emptying their wallets. With gas near $4 a gallon, locals are paying for the rising costs -- or finding alternative transportation.

Terry Lehman has found that riding the American Pony Express shuttle, contracted by Pima County, is one way to beat the price of gas.

It was after 7:30 a.m. when Lehman boarded the van in Green Valley on a recent weekday. She was headed to work at Raytheon, north of Sahuarita.

Lehman has ridden the shuttle for about two months. But she now plans to use it more often to avoid paying rising fuel prices.

For $2 one way, residents in the Sahuarita-Green Valley area can get to Raytheon Missile Systems and Bombardier Aerospace, where some Sahuarita residents work. Or residents can take the shuttle to a Tucson Sun Tran terminal where they can take a bus to other places.

The shuttle, called the "connector," is in its third year of operation, said Pat McGowan with the county's Transportation Department. A three-year federal grant has paid for the commuter service.

Workers from Sahuarita and Green Valley can take the shuttle to Tucson, and Tucson workers use it to get to their Green Valley jobs.

McGowan said that when federal funding for the connector ends in January, he expects the Regional Transportation Authority to pick up the operating costs. The shuttle currently costs about $200,000 annually, and the cost is expected to increase.

The commuter service, however, is used relatively little by residents. On one recent workday, there were only three other riders besides Lehman.

McGowan said that between January and May, the number of riders fluctuated from a low of 264 in January to last month's high of 336.

The highest recorded one-month ridership was 494 last year, he said.

McGowan said he expects the number of riders to increase as gas prices continue to rise and more people find out about the service.

Lehman said she was unaware of the shuttle until a co-worker mentioned it. She added that her Sahuarita co-workers were unaware of the shuttle until she told them.

The shuttle runs twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon, each run a round-trip.

In the morning it loops from the Laos Transit Center on West Irvington Road near South Sixth Avenue in Tucson, south on Interstate 19 to La Posada in Green Valley.

In Green Valley, the van stops at the Safeway on Duval Mine Road, then turns north to Rancho Sahuarita Boulevard at La Villita Road, to Desert Diamond Casino, then to the work gate at Bombardier/Raytheon on South Nogales Highway and back to the transit center.

The afternoon trip is the reverse of the morning route.

In addition, the van will stop between these points to pick up riders who have called in advance.

Tom McDonald, a Green Valley resident, takes the shuttle each Monday to go to the casino and back home. While the casino isn't far from his home, he figures it's cheaper to pay $4 for a day's shuttle than to drive his Mercury Grand Marquis, which he estimates gets 10 miles to the gallon.

Fabiola Lopez, who lives off Nogales Highway, rides the shuttle to the transit center, where she takes a bus to her Tucson job 25 miles away. It takes her two hours to reach work, but she has no car. Even if she did, paying $2 for the shuttle and $1 for Sun Tran beats paying for gas, Lopez said.

That's the same reason Lehman expects to use the shuttle more often. It costs her about $40 to fill her gas tank and, though her car gets about 30 miles to the gallon, the shuttle remains a bargain.

"I'll be riding the shuttle more," said Lehman.

Use bus to save money on gas

Riders who want to ride the shuttle can call American Pony Express at 609-6221.

--Contact Ernesto Portillo Jr. at 807-8414 or at [email protected]


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