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County approves cuts to CC Rider

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - A sign for the CC Rider bus stands at the Scappoose Post Office. The Columbia County commissioners recently approved proposed service reductions. Some bus routes will be altered, others will be cut altogether. Major cuts are coming to the CC Rider public transit system beginning April 1.

In an effort to keep the system solvent, the Columbia County Commissioners approved a number of service reductions following a public hearing Feb. 20. There will be no changes to the St. Helens-to-Portland, South Flex and PCC routes, but there will be major reductions to the popular Dial-a-Ride service while trips to the Nehalem Valley will be cut from three times a day, five days a week to two times a day and only three days a week. Weekend connector service will be eliminated once the grant funding ends in August.

The cuts were made where ridership was low, said CC Rider Transit Coordinator Roy Weedman.

At the commissioners’ direction, however, proposed cuts to the North Flex route and the Westport-to-Longview route will not occur. Both routes will continue to run three times a day, five days a week.

“We wanted to make sure people could get to work,” Weedman said, explaining that these routes are primarily used by people traveling to and from their jobs.

Also important to CC Rider is how these two routes connect with buses from Clatsop County’s Sunset Empire Transit District. Weedman said many riders rely on the cross-county connection.

“We were looking at some possibility of people being stranded [mid-route] and we didn’t want that to happen,” he said.

However, these and other routes will experience a “streamlining” overhaul.

“There were a lot of routes running on top of each other,” Weedman explained.

CC Rider is also developing an application, modeled after a similar application by TriMet, for riders interested in using the Dial-a-Ride service. Weedman said applicants who rely on DAR for medical and life needs will take priority.

The service has been CC Rider’s most popular and most expensive service to provide. While many elderly and disabled riders rely on it, too many other Columbia County residents “use it like a taxi,” Weedman said. These riders frequently abuse the system, he added, canceling at the last minute when a driver is already en route.

The transit system is cutting the hours DAR will be available in certain areas of the county and is looking at ways to group ride requests together.

CC Rider, unlike Clatsop’s Sunset Empire, is not a district — it is not supported by a tax base. It must rely on consistent ridership as well as grants and federal and state money to remain solvent. But money from the state has been dwindling, grants have been hard to come by and too many routes had low ridership, transit officials discovered.

The cuts and route changes were based on information gathered over a four-month period.

Residents in more isolated parts of the county will feel the effect of the cuts immediately, especially people in places like Vernonia, said Commissioner Tony Hyde.

“It’s going to serve some of them at a loss, it just is,” he said, but added, “They need to realize this service is available and you have to use it or it’s gone.”

At one of the first public hearings about the cuts, Hanna Bristol, program coordinator with Community Access Services, said her clients will also suffer from the reductions. She works with adults with developmental disabilities who rely on DAR and the bus routes to get them to and from work. Public transit also provides one invaluable service: quality of life. It keeps these adults mobile and in touch with the outside world.

“Their behavior challenges go way down when they have that quality of life,” Bristol said.

This was echoed by other county residents who submitted testimony on behalf of the elderly who use DAR for social engagements as well as medical appointments.

These social engagements are just as important, even if they are not technically “medical,” said Debra Wheeler, who coordinates activities at the Columbia Care Center.

Some seniors leave the center only 12 times a year, she said. “How would you feel if you weren’t able to get out any more than that?”

Weedman says he hopes the DAR service will remain flexible. He said the system overhaul “will require a lot of education and outreach on our part.”

“Hopefully we can become more efficient and be more responsible with funding and be able to add back services,” he said.

The transit system is not planning to increase fares anytime soon, he added. “If we increase rates, we’ll lose even more riders at this point.”

To view CC Rider’s full presentation with rider and route statistics, visit www.columbiacountyrider.com.