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County recognized for transit partnership

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - A Columbia County Rider bus sits empty at the transit center in St. Helens.A national organization is recognizing the Columbia County government with an achievement award for transportation, making the county one of three in Oregon so honored this year.

Columbia County is receiving the award from the National Association of Counties for its role in the North by Northwest Connector Alliance, a collaboration with Benton, Clatsop, Lincoln and Tillamook counties aimed at increasing mass transit ridership.

“It’s pretty exciting that you can now get on a bus in Lincoln City and end up in Portland,” said County Commissioner Tony Hyde, who said Columbia County applied for the award on behalf of the five-county partnership.

Ironically, though, the award comes just months after the Columbia County Rider bus system was forced to make deep cuts to its local service due to limited county funding. Director Janet Wright said a steep service reduction took effect April 1, and ridership declined immediately thereafter.

In addition to county funds drying up, CC Rider is coping with the end of federal grant money obtained through the partnership, Wright said. The $3.5 million General Innovation Fund grant from the Department of Energy runs out Aug. 13.

“We’re looking at some possible additional changes, but we’re hoping not, because you know, it’s very important to have some continuity here,” Wright said.

NACo presents hundreds of achievement awards every year, with Clackamas and Multnomah counties also among this year’s recipients.

A spokesman for the organization described the award as an “atta-boy” to recognize a county’s good work.

“The NACo Achievement Award program is a noncompetitive award program that recognizes innovative county governments,” Jim Philipps explained. “If it rises to the level, based on our criteria, to be worthy of an achievement award, then they will get an achievement award. ... Basically, the criteria is, there has to be a tangible result, a tangible benefit, to the program. It addresses a specific need.”

The achievement award highlighting Columbia County’s public transit accomplishments “helps,” Wright said, but dollars are scarce with no dedicated funding stream to keep CC Rider afloat. Instead, the system must rely on state grant funding, money raised from fares and contributions from municipalities.

“The answer to this is that we need some kind of a stable source of funding,” said Wright. “I want people to start thinking about that, and thinking hard, because it’s going to be a big question and issue for a lot of seniors, a lot of students and everybody.”

County Commissioner Henry Heimuller said that developing such a funding source is among commissioners’ priorities.

“Absolutely it’s something that we’ve got to work on in the future,” he said.

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