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Public Transit's Uphill Climb 

COIC rolls out transit education efforts

Since Oregon State University announced its plans to plot a new campus on Bend's westside, there has been murmuring (sometimes more) about how the addition of hundreds of new students will clog the thruways stretching across town. That discussion falls at the forefront of a larger issue: the paltry offering of public transportation in Central Oregon, and a dim future for funding the much-needed expansions of bus lines.

Within those conversations, the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council (COIC) has started to push forward with education and advocacy efforts.

Last week, the organization, which currently oversees public transit in Central Oregon, kicked off a three-year public education campaign aimed at raising awareness of the current and potential value of a thriving transit system.

"What values does transit serve, and what values could it serve, to meet already articulated community desires and concerns?" asks Scott Aycock, Community and Economic Development Manager for the COIC.

He says more than 40 people from diverse backgrounds turned up for the inaugural discussion, "Moving to the Future—Envisioning Better Public Transit for Central Oregon," on July 17 at Central Oregon Community College, including students, elected officials, business types, and people from different parts of the region.

The challenge COIC faces is that, despite being the governing body for transportation in the region, it is not able to levy taxes to fund transportation services. Transit is currently funded through a patchwork of city funds and private partnerships. Aycock says that isn't a sustainable model.

"We've got to come up with something that's more stable and enduring," he says.

That is why the council, whose board is comprised of elected city and county officials, is contemplating a legislative fix, to amend Oregon Revised Statute 190.083, which stops just short of giving the COIC the tools it needs to secure reliable funding. The statute, which allows for the creation of an intergovernmental body such as the COIC, allows it to seek funding for transportation facilities, but not services.

It may seem like a minor distinction, but Aycock says the COIC consulted with attorneys and was advised that to move forward with an interpretation that includes transit services would open the council up to legal challenge.

While the COIC has not officially decided to pursue a legislative fix—Aycock says it would be premature at this point—the City of Bend seems prepared to support that approach. At the July 16 City Council meeting work session, lobbyist and consultant Erik Kancler presented a list of likely legislative priorities for the 2015 session. Transportation was number one.

"Our primary goal here is to secure opportunities to fund the city's transportation," Kancler explained, "to make sure the state is allocating funding in right places and make sure they understand our priorities."

To that end, the city has joined the Oregon Transportation Forum, a group of lobbyists who are working to create a transportation package that meets the needs of their respective clients.

"There needs to be some attention statewide on this front," City Manager Eric King stressed. "Nobody on the east side of the Cascades has been invited to this."

Kancler pointed out that while the OTF has been fairly Portland or Willamette Valley-centric, he believes the group is glad to have a Central Oregon perspective.

"We bring a different perspective," Kancler said. "Our participation has been welcomed, I think."

Bend's list of potential legislative priorities includes a number of transportation-related issues, but not necessarily direct funding for additional public transportation. For example, a system-wide pavement index ranks the city's streets 69 out of 100—effectively a D. The city is aiming for at least a B. In all, transportation takes up four full pages of the summary, highlighting the importance of securing dedicated funding for public transit instead of relying on general transportation funding.

"Most places our size have a property tax or something supporting the transit system," Aycock points out. At present, the COIC has neither the legal authority to levy a tax to fund transit services, nor yet the public support to pass such a measure.

When COIC surveyed the public last fall, support for a transit tax was in the low 40 percent. Aycock says he wants to see that in at least the mid-50s before it goes to a vote. But, he adds, the climate is increasingly in favor of passing a property or other tax to create a permanent funding source.

Among the factors working in COIC's favor, Aycock says, are the expansion of OSU-Cascades and public awareness of the related transit needs. As well, with the region emerging from a recession and an increasing understanding in the business community that vibrant transit supports employee performance and attracts business to the region, there is reason for optimism that public support could rise for publicly funding public transportation.

The COIC is hoping to bank on these shifting attitudes by hiring an outreach and engagement administrator to helm its education efforts. Applications for that position close on July 24. Aycock says the council has already received a number of applications from passionate and highly qualified candidates.

"We're going to have a bigger voice than before to help people who may not use transit understand why it's important to the community," Aycock explains. "On my behalf, I have no willingness to put something out there and have it fail."


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