Challenge of finding new funds difficult in light of other county priorities

by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - The CC Rider public transportation system lost 200 riders following service reductions in April, but transit officials say the cuts were a long time in coming and necessary if the system were to remain solvent.In the two months since the Columbia County Rider public transit system enacted sweeping cuts, it has become clear to transportation officials what portion of the county’s population has suffered from the reduction in services the most: seniors and people with disabilities.

It has not been an easy transition. Many seniors rely on the buses and now reduced Dial-A-Ride services to make it to medical appointments and to run errands.

“It’s been a real challenge for people,” said Janet Wright, county transit program administrator. “We don’t want people to miss medical appointments, dialysis ... But we needed to make the cuts a long time before we actually did.”

They have lost 200 riders since April, Wright said. Still, she believes they would have lost more if they hadn’t decided to keep other routes intact.

The popular Dial-A-Ride service, costly for the transit center to operate and often abused by users, now runs on reduced hours and requires people to submit an application for approval before they can call on the service. Of the 150 people who have applied so far, Wright has been able to approve 146.

And the search is still on for a sustainable funding source.

The CC Rider transit system, unlike many transit systems across the state which are often supported by a tax base, relies heavily on grants for its operational funding. With less and less money available from the county, however, it is difficult for Wright to get grants since she can’t supply the matching funds the grants require.

Wright believes a levy or the formation of a special district could support the transportation system, but neither option is currently on the table.

“Would the county residents vote for it? I don’t know whether they would vote for it or not,” Wright said.

At the county government level, Wright knows transportation is a priority, but it may not be one of the top priorities. A jail operational levy is in the works for the November ballot and, as a result, it is unlikely Wright will see a CC Rider levy any time soon.

“There’s only so many tax dollars to go around,” said Columbia County Commissioner Henry Heimuller, who was the CC Rider transit coordinator before becoming a county commissioner. If the county were to stack up multiple levies in the November ballot, it is likely they would all be voted down, he said.

In the meantime, public safety is a higher concern than public transportation, he said.

Meanwhile, plans to finish the county transportation center near Highway 30 off Deer Island Road are still moving forward. Phase Four, which will open up a park-and-ride lot and bus storage shelter, is set to begin in July.

Wright is also busy trying to market the transportation system, advertising the ease of weekend day trips into Portland thanks to Weekend Connector routes.

Before the cuts, Wright believes county residents took the transportation system for granted. Dial-A-Ride was particularly abused, with a number of people using it more like a taxi service and often canceling last minute — costs the transit system couldn’t swallow easily. Now, because of the inconveniences the cuts have imposed, the community is more aware, Wright believes.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” she said.

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