Umatilla County has slashed its public transit budget despite local demand.
As first reported by the East Oregonian, the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners voted on Wednesday to make a 20% cut to its transportation improvement fund, a development that will lead local public transit programs to slash their senior and disabled transportation programs.
The county approved the fund in late December, but the county says the Oregon Department of Transportation contacted them on Jan. 31 and required the 20% cut to make up for a loss in federal funding for senior and disabled transit services. Board Chair Dan Dorran said the reduction is the result of a “miscalculation” made by the state.
“We can’t figure out what went haywire,” Dorran said, adding that county officials didn’t know whether this cut would be permanent or temporary.
The end result is that city transit services for people who are disabled in Pendleton, Hermiston and Milton-Freewater will all receive less money. Milton-Freewater saw the deepest reduction, but it is also supported by the Walla Walla Metropolitan Planning Organization based in neighboring southeast Washington.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, public transit services were growing rapidly. Hermiston launched its first fixed-route bus service in 2017, and after nearly doubling its ridership from the first to second year, expanded its hours of operation. Pendleton followed suit in 2018 with its Let’er Bus service.
Bolstered by dial-a-ride and subsidized taxi rides for seniors and disabled residents, the fixed route buses expanded their service and remain fare-free thanks to a state payroll tax that began in 2018.
Ridership took a hit during the pandemic shutdowns, but Umatilla County’s transit plan still includes funding for service expansions and infrastructure investments.
Pendleton’s finance director told the East Oregonian that the cuts could result in fewer dial-a-ride hours and limited ticket availability for the subsidized taxi ride program, but she said, “it won’t be noticed dramatically by the consumers.”
Darrin Umbarger works as the CEO of Clearview Disability Resource Center, a Pendleton organization that operates a bus service to take disabled residents to non-emergency medical appointments. Umbarger said Clearview isn’t affected by the budget cut since it’s paid by Medicaid through Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc., but demand remains high for its services.
Umbarger said one of his vans recently went as far as Hood River to get riders to an appointment. Without subsidies, traveling can get expensive. Umbarger said his mother is in a wheelchair and had to pay $2,000 for a taxi to get her from Salem to Pendleton after the death of her mother. With inflation and the cost of living rising, Umbarger said he can’t understand why unsubsidized travel is so expensive.
“Why? I don’t understand it,” he said. “It hurts when stuff like that happens because people on fixed-income can’t afford that. That might be all they have to live on for a year.”