Ace Hardware in Milton-Freewater does not open until 8 a.m., but at 6:30 a.m. there is a cluster of people waiting in the pitch-black parking lot. One of the busiest bus routes in the region — the Walla Walla Whistler — is minutes away from picking them up.
The free bus service started a decade ago by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation has been welcomed with open arms. But the growing embrace comes with a push to expand into western Umatilla County and bulging buses on some of the most popular routes.
In October, nearly 9,000 people rode the seven tribal transit routes. It has been a steep climb to that number since 2001, when the transit system sent 90 people to and from Pendleton and Mission in three months.
Since 2009, the Mission Metro has expanded to six other routes with nifty names — the Pilot Rocket, La Grande Arrow, Walla Walla Whistler, Hermiston Hopper, Tri-City Trolley and Tutuilla Tripper — and seats filled quickly. The Metro still remains the most popular route, with 3,227 passengers in October.
Now, CTUIR comprehensive planning manager Jim Beard said the bus system is looking west.
“We have covered the rural population in Umatilla County pretty well but there are a lot of people living along the west side of the county that we’re not serving now,” Beard said.
The Hermiston Hopper already transports riders from there to Pendleton, connecting to Mission and Tri-Cities, but Beard said CTUIR is in talks to add more stops in smaller towns such as Umatilla, Irrigon and Echo in order to reach people in rural western Umatilla and Morrow counties.
“It’s a lot like what we’ve done with the Whistler in Athena, in Weston, in Adams,” Beard said.
The Whistler, which is the second most popular route, stops at many small towns in its trek back and forth from Walla Walla to Pendleton. There are a variety of people taking the bus — seniors doing errands, people getting to work, friends going shopping.
Rider Lin Riedel, 39, lives in Milton-Freewater and takes the Whistler every day to work at Craig’s Office Supply in Pendleton.
Riedel drove her car the same route for about eight years before the Whistler started stopping in her town.
“It was getting really difficult to afford gas,” she said. “I appreciate (the bus) immensely. The drivers are always so thoughtful and really try to get everyone to their jobs before they need to be there.”
But the route is so popular that riders often stand because all the seats are occupied. Beard said the tribes are looking into either buying bigger vehicles or adding more buses to the route.
CTUIR contracts out to Elite Taxis, a transportation service based in Pendleton, to provide the buses and vans.
“It is up to them to offer new routes and buses, and we work with them to provide it,” said Rod Johlke of Elite Taxis. “I think it’s been incredibly successful. The overall concept was to provide local transportation to people needing it and we’ve done that.”
CTUIR’s bus program costs about $700,000 per year. About 20 percent of that comes from tribal funds, the other 80 percent comes from state and federal transit funds. Beard said there are no plans to begin charging for the bus.
The benefits of a free bus system for residents are evident, but Beard sees the bus system as an economic investment for the tribes as well.
“The tribes have learned that the transit system is a vital part of their overall economic development,” Beard said. “People can commit to jobs in another city that they couldn’t commit to before. It gets people to the workplace and it gets people there on time. It optimizes all the investment the tribes have made in job creation.”
Contact Natalie Wheeler at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4547.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.