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On Shaky Ground: Future of Bend bus system unclear even as transit takes off 

One of the beauties of public transportation? You don't actually have to be awake during your commute. There's a revolution going on in the streets

click to enlarge One of the beauties of public transportation? You don't actually have to be awake during your commute.
  • One of the beauties of public transportation? You don't actually have to be awake during your commute.
One of the beauties of public transportation? You don't actually have to be awake during your commute. There's a revolution going on in the streets of America. And it ain't the one dreamed up by the marketing folks at Chevrolet. Quite the opposite, record high gas prices are pushing people out of their cars and onto other forms of transportation. Bike sales are up. Amtrak is breaking records and bus ridership is at its highest in 50 years and growing.

 
Right in our backyard, the number of people punching bus tickets is climbing steadily - roughly half a million riders have taken the Bend bus system since it started service in September of 2006. But at a time when public transportation is looking better and better, the future of Bend's fledgling bus system is in question.

The city council cut more than $200,000 out of the Bend Area Transit (BAT) budget this year and is looking at much deeper cuts if voters don't approve a proposed transit district in November. If approved, the new district would take over administration of BAT and would remove the burden of funding the system from the city council, which this year is putting about $1.3 million into BAT from the city's general fund - money which otherwise could go to services like police, fire, road repair, etc.


click to enlarge Image
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No one is saying just what will happen to the bus system if voters - as they have in the past - shoot down the measure, but most agree that the city would be hard pressed to maintain even a fraction of what it has today.

"I think it would leave the system on shaky ground. We have very limited service right now, to cut it more you have to ask yourself some tough questions about how much service does it provide the community," said city Transit Manager Heather Ornelas.

If that happens it would be a pretty spectacular flame out for a system that started just a couple of years ago as a bold attempt to jumpstart bus service in Bend, which had earned a reputation as one of the largest cities in the western United States without a fixed route system.

Since then the city and the transit program, which is administered by a private contractor, have come under fire from seniors who blasted cutbacks in the city's on-demand service (known as Dial-A-Ride) and advocates for the disabled who criticized the city for moving forward on the system before it was accessible for wheelchairs and others with physical disabilities.

But the most publicized of the city's woes was its ill-fated purchase of the now infamous blue buses. The city has sued the California-based company, Transit Sales International, that sold the buses to Bend's Public Works Department, saying the company misrepresented the condition of the buses and even the mileage (a claim which the city has dropped in the ongoing lawsuit). But the buses, none of which are still in service, represent a sort of rallying point for transit critics and critics of city management in general, who see them as a symbol of mismanagement.

It's a perception that transit supporters know they will have to deal with if the city is to be successful in November.

"We have to be frank with voters and say we probably didn't do our due diligence. We can't blame it all on the bus supplier. We made some mistakes. We have to fess up," said Peter Gramlich, one of several city councilors who is up for re-election in November.

In his case, Gramlich said he doesn't see the bus issue as a huge liability for his own campaign, partly because he wasn't on the council at the time of their purchase. But he also thinks that public outrage over the handling of the transit system and other high profile projects like Juniper Ridge and the Bend urban growth boundary expansion have subsided as of late.

But he knows that the transit district, which as a councilor he is not allowed to lobby for or against, faces an uphill battle. If it fails, he said, the community needs to be ready to accept that the council won't be able to continue to pour money into the system - in other words significant cuts to services. That means fewer buses running on fewer routes and the possibility of things like total elimination of weekend service. Still, Gramlich said he personally is not willing to relegate the bus system to the scrap heap if voters fail to come to its aid.

"We have to have a plan B in place," he said. "I don't think it's as simple as saying, 'If it doesn't pass, then all transit goes away for good.' That's not the case, we have to have some viable transit - period."

Brandon Keggan, a first-time rider who was riding the bus earlier this week to his abnormal psychology class at Central Oregon Community College, agrees.

"Alternate transportation is a must," he said.

Another passenger, Nathaniel Manner concurred. Manner who was visiting his nephew in Bend took the bus on a lark as a way to sightsee. Manner, who lives in San Diego, said that city's public transportation is pretty poor, but he liked what he had seen from Bend's system.

Manner said public transit is a key issue no matter where you live.

"It's absolutely necessary, he said. "When you look at the dollar, and the cost of the gallon of gas, you're only going to see a greater growth and appreciation."

It's not just about getting a certain segment of the city's population from point A to point B. The changing dynamics of the urban and suburban landscape, which have been brought sharply into focus by the current gas crises (note there aren't any 70s style lines at the pumps anywhere in the country, i.e. no shortage) necessitates that successful cities provide comprehensive public transportation to the workforce. Without this piece of the puzzle the city is going to have a tough time attracting new jobs and industry, said Gramlich.

"I think a serious city of any size has to have a fixed route transit system," he said. "It certainly can't have had one and have it yanked. I mean how do we recruit employers and business to Bend and tell them, 'For the kinds of jobs you're going to be providing, with fuel costs where they are, with housing costs where they are, we don't offer a public transit system.' That's going to be a real tough pitch to make."

City communications manager Justin Finestone said that other communities where he has lived in Colorado and Phoenix, Ariz. have embraced transit as a tool of economic growth - two states that are not exactly the post-children of great urban planning.

In Eagle County, Colo. where he worked as the communication director, Finestone said public transportation changed the entire dynamic of development.

"Every land use decision is talked about in terms of transit-oriented development and increased densities to let people walk from where they live to a mass transit site to take them to work where they can walk to their office 365 days a year."

In the Phoenix area, he said developers are chasing the chance to be located anywhere near the light rail and mass transit hubs.

These kind of stories are happening all over the country where mass transit ridership hit 10.5 billion trips in 2007 - the highest number in half a century, said Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association in Washington, D.C.

Many places are wrestling with how to keep up with the unprecedented growth in demand. In the Bay Area, transit managers opted to remove seats from the BART rail cars to make more room for passengers who are crowding in at standing room only. Meanwhile, Bend has ordered four new buses to anchor its transit system, which is run basically on the backs of the old Dial-A-Ride system shuttles, and started work on a nearly $5 million Transit Operations Center, which is funded primarily through a state grant.

Even Congress has recognized the growing role of mass transit in our car-centric society and economy. The House recently authorized $1.7 billion to help transit providers deal with the rising demand for transit and the rising cost of providing that service at today's fuel prices. While the bill doesn't have a companion yet in the Senate, which means there's no guarantee that it will be funded, it underscores that the country, at least for the time being is moving forward with buses and rail systems in a big way.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, we won't know until November if Bend is going to be moving the other way.

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