This past weekend, the Sunset Empire Transit District restored its weekend bus service between Astoria and Cannon Beach, and a weekday bus route along Highway 101 which connects Astoria to coastal communities in Clatsop County. Earlier this month, the agency restarted curbside paratransit pickups for riders who are unable to travel to fixed route bus stops.
The Astorian previously reported that the transit district would restore some services after it had abruptly suspended operations and laid off workers last month when the board learned the agency had run out of money.
Paul Lewicki, who worked for five years as the district’s chief operating officer before he retired last year, was at that board meeting when the district’s massive budget shortfall was revealed.
“Like the rest of the community here, I was blindsided. I had no inkling ahead of time that there was such a situation brewing, and so it was a shocking revelation to all of us,” Lewicki said.
Lewicki agreed to come out of retirement to serve as the district’s interim executive director to help it navigate the current crisis. He refused to speculate on why the district ran out of funds, but said the Oregon Department of Transportation would conduct an audit of the district’s finances, and “make a determination based on evidence rather than speculation.”
ODOT also extended an emergency loan for more than half a million dollars, which has also allowed the district to restore some of its routes and rehire available staff.
According to Lewicki, the funds from ODOT will carry the district through the second half of June, while it pursues other sources of funding.
“It may mean a second loan. It may mean some reimbursement on grants that we have outstanding,” he said. “But I expect that we will have additional funding to get us through to the beginning of the fiscal year in July in which we have a new round of funding available from the state.”
Before suspending its operations, the Sunset Empire Transportation District provided more than 100,000 rides a year throughout Clatsop County for seniors, people with disabilities and other riders on fixed incomes.
Lewicki regretted the impact the service cuts have had on riders, while also acknowledging it may take six months to a year before services are fully restored.
“I know that the few staff who have been recalled as well as the board, as well as people at ODOT, are all working — and I tell you — daily and tirelessly, to find an effective path back. It’s important to all of us here to restore the service that we know all of our riders depend on. And we will work until that’s done.”
Paul Lewicki spoke to “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller. Click play to listen to the full conversation: