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Budget breakdown: Bus lines will likely be dropped

In the face of rising fuel costs and dwindling revenue, CC Rider officials prepare for service cuts
by: Darryl Swan RIDING — Transit officials expect to trim services, including routes, after a tough fiscal year.

The unknowns for government-provided services as agencies head into the heart of a sketchy budgeting season are huge, a fact Columbia County's Transit Director Janet Wright knows too well.

Wright oversees the county's bus system, called the CC Rider, which is in its fifth year. On many levels the bus system is as stable as it has ever been - in 2010 it had record ridership and groundwork at a transit center in St. Helens is now occurring. Last year, CC Rider provided 91,500 rides.

Rising fuel costs and the drop off of federal stimulus and community contribution funds that had helped bolster some aspects of the transit program have made it likely cuts or fare increases - or both - will occur.

'I think there's going to be some reduction in services that I'm going to have to look at,' Wright said. 'The fare would be the last thing to increase.'

One thing is certain: Demand response rides, which receive federal-state pass-through dollars from Medicare and Medicaid programs, are safe. So too are popular fixed routes into Portland that link places like St. Helens, Scappoose and Portland Community College's Rock Creek Campus together.

Less-popular routes, especially the twice-per-week rides from Vernonia to St. Helens or Vernonia to the PCC campus, the latter a recently started pilot program, are in jeopardy.

Wright said she will have a more firm assessment of the transit program's budgetary vitality within the next two weeks.

Route reductions could adversely affect some people who are depending on the system as their only transportation option and, in some cases, as the only access to fresh job markets.

Tamara Fowler, 51, of Vernonia takes CC Rider from her home to a job-training center in St. Helens, where she is working toward her high school equivalency certificate.

'That would definitely stop,' Fowler said of her efforts. She added that CC Rider is her only transportation source out of Vernonia, and that loss of those routes would severely change her educational and employment opportunities. 'I wouldn't be able to get a job or do anything outside of Vernonia.'

As a student, Fowler's bus fare is covered through the vocational training program she attends, she said.

Generally, CC Rider fares have increased once before, during the last fuel crisis when the price for a gallon of gasoline in Oregon reached $4.29 in summer 2008. On March 22, the American Automobile Association reported an average gallon price at $3.68 and rising.

Last month, the fuel expense to run CC Rider climbed from an early average of $14,500 to $18,000. Wright expected the longer month of March would show even greater increases, though she said she is planning to hold the fuel budget over the next year to $175,000.

Fuel costs are not the only drag on the transit systems budget, however. Of the three revenue components it relies on - state grants, community contributions and fares - community contributions from Columbia County's cities are also in decline, and a federal stimulus grant that covered last year's maintenance expense is not being renewed this year, Wright said.

Wright said she has heard some criticism aimed at the program, including comments the buses too frequently run without passengers and that it's time for the county to move forward with a proposal to establish a transit tax district.

But with the recession already weighing heavy on taxpayers and other prominent tax levy ventures on the horizon - including the proposed Columbia County Sheriff's Office and St. Helens School District levies - she said the transit district is not a priority at this time.

'It may not be the right time for awhile,' she said.

Bus service fallout

Recent fallout from a shake-up of the Sunset Empire Transportation District in Clatsop County is forcing Columbia County to review its bus service to Westport, said Columbia County Transit Director Janet Wright. Sunset Empire Transportation District ceased its Westport line in light of significant budgetary challenges and the subsequent resignation of the transit district's director, Cindy Howe.

For now, however, Wright said CC Rider services to Westport would continue and its status be further reviewed in light of the budget.