How the Highway 17 Express service came into being

(A synopsis, aided by Les White, former Transit District General Manager, and updated in 2018 by Barrow Emerson of the Transit District)

It began with the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake

The first Highway 17 service began in 1989, following the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which caused (among other things) Highway 17 to be partially blocked by massive slides. This made it difficult and time-consuming to travel to San Jose using an automobile. If you were driving a car, you had to wait, and then hope to be escorted through the slide area.

This situation stimulated the initiation of a bus service, as a way to allow people to get to San Jose with some convenience while the road was undergoing repairs. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) agreed to pay one-half of the deficit of operating the service, a service that made it easier for those wanting to get to San Jose, to commute to jobs or for other reasons.

Prior to the earthquake, public transportation service “over the hill” was minimal, provided only by Greyhound and Peerless using old buses, a far cry from the service that is available today.

When Highway 17 was reopened to general traffic, there was some thought of discontinuing the service. The eight buses that were used were originally purchased with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funds for the purpose of providing vehicles for private companies to provide service between Santa Cruz and Watsonville.

The popularity of the service continued after the earthquake

However, when Highway 17 reopened, the bus service “over the hill” had gained a loyal group of riders that requested that the METRO Board continue the operation of the service, which the Board agreed to do, but a thorny problem had to be dealt with: The buses could only be operated by a private company, and the local union had contractual jurisdiction over equipment that was owned by METRO. Hence an agreement had to be developed that exempted the Highway 17 buses from the union jurisdiction for the useful life of the equipment as defined by the FTA (12 years). The effect of this agreement with the union was to limit the growth of the service until the eight buses reached the end of their useful life, at which time the FTA requirement could be removed.

In 1999 METRO petitioned the FTA to remove the private operator requirement for the eight buses, and the FTA agreed with and approved METRO's request. Thus in October 1999, METRO began direct operation of the Highway 17 service, which allowed the service to be expanded under the union labor agreement. METRO also purchased ten used buses from Golden Gate Transit to begin expanding the Highway 17 service. These buses contained the high-back commuter style seats that were in use on the other Highway 17 buses.

Funding for new buses was obtained in 2001

In 2001, Assemblymember Fred Keeley and State Senator Bruce McPherson were successful in obtaining the inclusion of $6.5 million in the Governor's Traffic Congestion Relief Program for Santa Cruz to purchase eleven new buses for the Highway 17 service. These new buses would be used to replace the used buses purchased from Golden Gate Transit.

A new agreement takes shape

At the same time, METRO, under the leadership of General Manager Les White, began discussions with Caltrans, the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board, VTA and AMTRAK regarding the possibility of combining the AMTRAK Connector Service with the Highway 17 service. This combination would allow the operation of the Highway 17 service 365 days per year and would also allow the service to be extended from Scotts Valley to the Santa Cruz Metro Center—an extension which at that time was precluded by existing contracts.

By 2004, services were merged and ridership climbed

In 2003, the new buses were received and the old Golden Gate buses were retired, and in April 2004 the AMTRAK Connector Service was merged with the Highway 17 service. (Until this time, the AMTRAK Connector Service was separate, operating only from the Santa Cruz Metro Center using buses contracted for from private companies. Its use was limited to AMTRAK passengers.) Financial support was (and is currently) provided by five agencies: Caltrans, VTA, the CCJPA, AMTRAK and METRO. The first year of operation saw an increase in ridership of 60 percent.

For the first time, Santa Cruz was provided with a well run system that truly serves the public, does not rely on private operators and is reasonably priced. The Highway 17 Express provides unrestricted access, not only to San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley transit system, but also to AMTRAK (including the Capitol Corridor trains), Caltrain, and the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) trains. That situation continues today.

Our unique agreement became a statewide model

In subsequent years, the ridership continued to grow, and the multi-party interagency agreement that was developed by METRO is used by Caltrans as a model throughout the state.

The service has been strengthened, and is increasingly popular

In 2008, METRO placed five new Highway 17 buses in service, replacing the original 1989 buses that had over a million miles on each bus. In 2010, the Santa Clara VTA used funds from their local sales tax Measure A to purchase five additional Highway 17 buses and title them to METRO. Now in 2013, with 32 trips each weekday and 15 trips on weekends and holidays, METRO continues to set ridership records on the service, and is expanding frequencies as funds from the slowly rebounding economy allow.

Changes since 2013

In 2015, the Highway 17 Express regular fare was raised from $5 to $7 ($3.50 for those 62 and over)—still a reasonable amount. In 2016, METRO had to reduce the service level, as part of a system-wide reduction to address a $6 million structural deficit, and reduced the number of one-way trips on weekdays from 61 to 55, and on weekends from 31 to 29.

However in the Spring of 2018, two new direct trips were added in the morning peak period to San Jose Diridon, which allowed both decreased travel time and better connections with Caltrain.

Currently, METRO is investigating, with its funding partner VTA, the possibility of replacing some of its aging Highway 17 fleet with new “over-the-road” coaches.

The Highway 17 Express service remains popular. It provides our only current link to the outside world via public transportation. It has Wi-Fi, excellent views, frequent service, and is relaxing. Try it out!