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A One-Way Trip?: Bend's transit supporters weigh next move in the face of cuts 

click to enlarge Image: It may not be the end of the line, but BAT and its riders face an uncertain future amidst city budget cuts.
  • Image: It may not be the end of the line, but BAT and its riders face an uncertain future amidst city budget cuts.
Chase Hovan is the kind of bus rider who drives Annis Henson crazy.

An 18-year old COCC student who is learning to play piano and studying music production, Hovan uses the bus to get to and from his classes almost everyday. Standing at a bus stop outside the local Ace Hardware store on Third Street, Hovan has a snowboarder-style hoodie pulled up against the morning chill. A shock of red hair sticks out from underneath his ball cap; he could probably pass for boarding star Shaun White - or at least as his brother.

Asked what he thought of the fledgling bus system, Hovan was quick to speak for its necessity.

"It's awesome," he said. "I don't know what I would do if I didn't have it."

But when asked if he voted to preserve the bus with a local property tax increase just a few weeks ago, Hovan conceded that he had not.

For someone like Henson, who served as the volunteer coordinator of the local transit committee and spent countless volunteer hours working on behalf of the bus funding measure, that's a little hard to believe. But she knows that Hovan isn't the only rider out there who failed to cast a ballot in the November transit election, which would have expanded and provided permanent funding for the transit system. Henson, who headed up the committee's voter registration effort, said she talked to plenty of riders who rely on the system who had no idea that it was in jeopardy as the city looks to pare back spending on transit in the face of a growing budget shortfall.

"The nature of some people's lives who are riding public transportation doesn't allow them to be involved, even if it affects them," Henson said.

Roughly three weeks after failing to secure a majority of votes needed to establish a permanent funding stream and operating structure for the local bus system, transit supporters are back with another plan to save Bend's fledgling bus system. Former Bend Chamber President Mike Schmidt has formally asked the council to put the transit measure back in front of voters in May.

But not everyone agrees that going back to voters is the best game plan.

City councilor Jim Clinton, who helped put the current system on the streets, said that he would favor taking a step back and analyzing all of the options available to the city. Councilor elect Jeff Eager, a local attorney who ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility, said he agrees with Clinton and would like to see the city take a look at some new ways of providing public transportation.

"I don't know that just going back to voters in May is the best thing to do when they just voted it down in November," Eager said. "What I would like to see happen is for the city to think outside the box a little on how to run that system."

click to enlarge It may not be the end of the line, but BAT and its riders face an uncertain future amidst city budget cuts.
  • It may not be the end of the line, but BAT and its riders face an uncertain future amidst city budget cuts.
It may not be the end of the line, but BAT and its riders face an uncertain future amidst city budget cuts. At present, the system is funded entirely through the city's general fund and a mix of federal and state grants. That's a problem for the city in these lean times because the bus system competes with other essential services like police, fire, emergency services, and soon, snow removal.

While it's a relatively small piece of the city's overall budget - less than $2 million annually out of a $75 million biennial budget - the city faces a severe budget shortfall and has been cutting back on programs and personnel, cutting dozens of jobs since the start of the building slowdown and leaving dozens more unfilled.

While it might not seem like a very strategic move, Schmidt said there are several reasons for the city to reboot the transit measure. First and foremost is the recent repeal of Oregon's infamous double majority rule, which made it difficult to raise taxes for transit, or anything else. The law, which was narrowly repealed on Nov. 4, required that any new taxes approved by voters had to be enacted in an election where more than 50 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. In a state with chronically low voter participation, that forced school, transit, and park bonds to crowd together during the few elections, such as this past November, when it would be almost guaranteed that a majority of voters will make it to the polls, or, in the case of Oregon, the mailbox.

The other compelling reason to consider going right back out to voters is the ability to piggyback off all the work that has just been done, said Schmidt, who works as a business consultant and headed up the recent transit campaign. At this point, the citizen committee that spearheaded the campaign is still largely in tact, said Schmidt. If they were to get the green light now, Schmidt said the committee would have more time to work on the May campaign than it did on the November election.

The city also has the ability to tweak the transit measure, possibly making it more palatable to voters. One idea is to remove Deschutes River Woods from the service district. That would reduce the operating costs and cut a precinct where unsupportive voters helped torpedo the transit measure a few weeks ago. The biggest change though is a proposal to shift the transit tax from homeowners to businesses by pursuing a payroll tax that would amount to two-tenths of one percent of a company's total payroll.

It may seem counterintuitive, but after talking to businesses about the transit plan over the last several months, the former chamber head said he believes they are more supportive of a payroll tax than a property tax. Or as Schmidt put it in his letter to the city council, business owners see the payroll tax as the "lesser of two evils."

Even if the city council decides to get behind a May election, there's no guarantee that it will stand a better chance than the November measure. Henson said she thinks it will be a real challenge to muster the volunteer effort needed to conduct a grassroots campaign on par with what the CBAT committee just completed - albeit unsuccessfully.

"Quite frankly, I'd like to know who is going to work on it this time," she said. "Who is going to do the part that we did. I know I'm not going to be available."

While Schmidt said the committee would have more time to work on the campaign if it starts now, Henson sees it differently. Although the November campaign didn't officially start until roughly six weeks before the election when the measure was certified, volunteers started organizing back in May. By that account, volunteers will have less time to push a May measure than they did the November question, said Henson.

Unlike November's vote, the committee won't be able to piggyback off the council election. In the fall election, a block of council candidates, including Jim Clinton, Linda Johnson and Peter Gramlich, teamed up with the Citizens for Bend Area Transit (CBAT) committee to get the word out about the bus measure, knocking on doors and passing out flyers.

Without money to fund a media and PR campaign, Henson said the committee would have to rely even more heavily on volunteers this time around. And if the recent past serves as any predictor of the near future, that's a problem.

"I saw many things that we needed to do that we couldn't do - not because of money, but because we didn't have enough people," she said.

"That's my hesitation, I don't think it would pass without a better effort," Henson.

Whether the committee will get another kick at the can is hard to say at this point. Even before the new fiscally conservative candidates are seated on the council, there seems to be a change in the political winds.

Council moderate Mark Capell said he doesn't think the council is willing to follow up November's failed vote with another vote in May on transit. And he isn't sold on a payroll tax as the answer.

"Unless a large group of employers got behind it and came to us and told us, 'We want you do it,' I didn't feel there was much desire on this council to go in that direction," said Capell.

But with millions of dollars in grant money at stake, and a community that is becoming more dependent on public transportation, the council has put itself in a difficult position. While Schmidt said supporters aren't willing to give up without a fight, he concedes it's pretty much in the hands of the city council at this point.

"All we can do is raise the flag and ask people to salute," he said.

The Nuclear Option

City councilors voted last week to retain the current service level through the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

To do that, the council will plow an estimated $20,000 in fuel savings and another $125,000 in maintenance savings as well as $24,000 in unbudgeted revenue into the bus system.

In the meantime the city council will meet in January for a financial summit that will include a discussion of the long- term options for transit. But it's unlikely that the city will be able to entirely dismantle the bus system - at least not without some severe financial consequences.

If the council took the "nuclear option" as city staff referred to it, the city would lose its annual $1 million federal match for the program. The city would also have to return any buses purchased in the past five years with federal dollars to the state Department of Transportation, greatly diminishing the fleet for any future system. Last, but not least, the city would be required to repay the state $4.1 million that it has used to construct the yet-to-be-completed transit hub on Bear Creek Road.

In other words: In for a penny; in for a pound.

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