This week, we’ve been exploring public bus service in Oregon. Monday, we heard about bus rapid transit systems in Portland and Eugene. Today, we’re going to hear about some of the challenges facing public transportation in Central Oregon. Over the last year, Cascades East Transit has scaled back its service. As David Nogueras reports, planners there are trying to figure out how to make rural transit more efficient without reducing access to those who need it most.
It’s a little before 8 a.m. and Verna Miller just boarded her bus at Bend’s Hawthorne Station. That’s on one of seven routes operated by Cascades East within Bend’s city limits. Outside the city, however CET operates what it calls community connectors between all of Central Oregon’s incorporated cities. Miller got off a connector from Redmond. She lives just north of there.
She explains, “I come from Terrebonne, actually.”
Miller waits with about a half dozen riders for the bus to leave the station. Like many, she’s on her way to work.
She says, “I’m an office manager.”
She has a car. But she says with gas prices so high - she’d rather make the 50 mile round trip by bus.
Inside the station is 21-year-old Kenya Hodson. She’s waiting for a bus to take her Central Oregon Community College. She says she wouldn’t be standing here unless she had to.
Hodson says, “I actually have a math class at 8:15 so yeah, I’m late this morning.”
Hodson will have to wait. These buses only run every 40 minutes.
He says frequency is one of the big differences between big city transit and some place that are more rural. Rural systems tend to cover greater distances while accommodating fewer riders.
He explains, “The more rural an area, the more transit is about providing service to people that don’t really have any other options.”
So he says certain benefits seen in urban systems, like reduced congestion, tend to take a backseat in rural settings.
But lately, it’s been the transit service itself that has run out of options. Over the last two years, CET has seen a spike in the cost of gasoline and an increase in the cost of benefits for its drivers.
Meanwhile, revenue that used to come as grants though non-profits and though tax credits has gone away. Before the cuts CET, was facing a deficit of more than $300 thousand.
Aycock says funding from local government has remained more or less stable. But he says unlike the system in Portland, where some money for public transportation comes through payroll taxes, CET relies on continued discretionary spending.
Aycock said, “Every single dollar we get in local funding could be used for something else. And that makes it very difficult to say, ‘You know, the system we’re going to have right now, we can count on having it in three years’ We can’t say that right now.”
CET received several comments from people who said they were unhappy about the recent service changes. Aycock provided copies of those comments to OPB, with the names redacted.
One woman commented that she had been riding the service from Prineville to Bend for work over the past year, and was very upset about the route cuts. Another mentioned a daughter who rides the service to Central Oregon Community College.
Many students rely on the public transit service. And the system could get some help as Oregon State University moves forward with plans to expand its Cascades Campus into a full 4-year University.
Becky Johnson is the Vice-President of OSU Cascades. She says OSU already has an partnership with the transit system in Corvallis. And she’s interested exploring the possibility of something similar, should the plans come though for a 4-year campus in Bend.
She told OPB, “We’re hoping that there won’t be a big reliance on cars. So if that means that we partner with a local transportation agencies either through student fees or university funds to help subsidize that, I think we’d be very open to talking about that.”
In the meantime, Scott Aycock says CET is focusing on short-range and long range funding plans. But he says the system needs to find ways generate more revenue. Without that, he worries more cuts could be on the horizon.