Darlene Needham holds back tears when she thinks about retiring.
“Because it's my baby and I don't want to give it up,” she said, mascara melting a little.
But when the phone rings at her desk inside the Harney County Senior Center, Needham pivots right back to business: “Dial-a-ride, this is Darlene. Who are you and where are you at?”
Needham is the founder of a ride service for seniors and others who don’t drive in one of Oregon’s most sprawling counties. Some 25 years ago, she was the region’s sole public transit employee — driving, dispatching, you name it. The only vehicle at her disposal wasn’t even wheelchair accessible. Now, there’s a fleet of 10 professional buses, with drivers averaging 500 miles a day. As word got out, demand soared.
“We couldn’t serve any more people with the door-to-door service. We were turning people away and it was super frustrating,” recalled Angie Lamborn, executive director for the Harney County Senior and Community Services Center.
But in recent years, state and federal funding supported more fixed bus routes, and that has changed who’s riding. In January, service between Burns, Hines and Bend will improve with more regular stops at predictable times. It's one sliver of a statewide shift in public transportation funding.
Lamborn said locals used to call Harney County’s transit system simply “the senior bus.” Ten years ago, the majority of riders were elderly. Now, two-thirds of the passengers are “under 60 with no visible disabilities,” according to Lamborn.
“Many folks are one dead car battery away from not getting to work. Then they don’t make rent and it’s just a snowball effect. But knowing you are going to have a bus at this spot, at this time, that keeps them working, keeps them in school. It keeps their lives moving, and catastrophe doesn’t have to snowball,” Lamborn said.
In 2014, Harney County qualified for the Highly Rural Transportation Grant Program. In 2017, the Oregon Legislature created the State Transportation Improvement Fund, or STIF, through a payroll tax of .01% on wages paid to employees.
“It’s a game changer,” said Karyn Criswell, who manages STIF for the Oregon Department of Transportation.
STIF guarantees rural counties a stable base to pay for public transit, and in larger counties like Multnomah, the funding is proportional to the taxes collected.
“Over the next two years, the providers are anticipating 38 million new transit rides,” Criswell said.
On one side of Oregon, STIF money covers TriMet’s popular low-income fare program, and on the other side in rural Harney County, it's financing new bus bays and fixed routes.
For Needham, the Harney County dial-a-ride manager, the funding seems to bring some peace of mind.
“I've been 25 years [here], and someday I want to retire,” she said.
Even with more stable funding, she doesn’t want to leave before a replacement is fully trained and trusted with her "baby."
She hasn’t officially been a driver for many years, but with a small staff, anything can happen.
“About a month ago I had a vacation, but we got shorthanded and I said, 'I'll tell you what, I'll drive' … . Because this community cannot do without dial-a -ride. Seniors don't have cars and still need to get groceries, or go to doctors," she said. "If they're sick, they have to get there and they can't always walk.”
The Oregon Transit Association recently named Needham outstanding public transit employee of the year.