GroveLink business triples in just two months, leads to adjustments

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - The GroveLink buses have nearly tripled their ridership over their first-week total in August. About half the riders arent waiting at bus stops, but rather flag down the 14-passenger vans as they pass.After just two months of tootling along Forest Grove’s backroads like TriMet’s lovable kid brother, GroveLink has encountered a problem: Full buses.

On the one hand, that’s exactly what the backers of Forest Grove’s new local transit service want.

On the other, what do drivers say to the rider waiting patiently at the bus stop: Sorry we’re full—another bus will be by in 30 minutes?

Full buses aren’t the only growing pain confronting Ride Connection, the accessible-transportation nonprofit that operates GroveLink. Riders have also called in about late buses and hard-to-read maps.

“We knew there’d be adjustments,” said Lydia Corran, Ride Connection’s outreach director. “We didn’t expect them to happen this quickly. We didn’t know we’d have full buses this soon.”

GroveLink has already tripled its ride numbers, from 142 the first week to a high of 423 two weeks before its two-month anniversary Oct. 19.

Forest Grove City Councilor Ron Thompson said the service originally aimed for a first-year ridership total of 18,000. Instead, they’re on track to hit 24,000—with a higher number even more likely.

“We are packed. It’s a genius system,” said bus driver Paul Davis, who piped classical music through the bus for the 23 riders he picked up before 9 a.m. Tuesday.

“I’m really glad it’s here. It’s incredible,” said Pacific University student Simon Brooks, 21, while riding the 14-person van to the Community Alternative Learning Center south of Highway 47 for his Civic Engagement class.

“I’m really glad I don’t have to walk,” said Nora Shinya, who takes GroveLink almost every day from her home near Forest Grove High School to connect with TriMet’s 57 bus.

The service operates weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on two loops (East and West) and the initial expectation was that the morning and evening “rush hours” would be busiest, so two buses roam the route during those hours, dropping to one midday.

While the buses are empty or nearly so from about 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., ridership picks up before and after, Corran said. “There’s been more [riders] during the day than we expected,” she said. “That actually surprised us.” by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Mayor Pete Truax (Viking shirt) hopped on GroveLink after the Homecoming Parade to get back to his car near City Hall. He also uses it to get downtown one morning a week for coffee with the boys. And my wife and I occasionally take it for Wednesday night market. In the early days, he was often the only rider--but not anymore, he said.

Meanwhile, during the morning commute, “We don’t have quite as many riders as we thought we would,” she said.

That’s when GroveLink planners expected to ferry lots of workers to the industrial corridor along 24th Avenue and to ViaSystems, which employs 900 people at its Poplar Lane site southwest of Highway 47.

Corran said they’re trying to figure out how to improve that early-morning commuter ridership.

A bigger problem seems to be behind-schedule buses, caused primarily by route deviations that take more time than expected.

Riders can request a dropoff up to a half-mile from the route—and the same for pickup if they call ahead. Right now there are 15 to 20 such deviation requests per week, Corran said, counting 10 for a single person who gets picked up and dropped off at her home each day. If a stop requires the wheelchair lift it takes extra time.

Such factors slow the buses more than route planners had calculated. At least four people—two of them angry—have called about the bus being late.

“We hate those calls,” said Corran. “As a transportation agency that’s something we severely want to avoid.”

To solve the problem, Ride Connection is changing the bus schedule to allow more time between stops. This will lengthen the overall route time from 22 to 28 minutes, but will make the timing more predictable.

The new schedule will likely be up on the Ride Connection website by early November, along with a more detailed route map, following complaints from patrons who wanted all the streets labeled.

Overall, Corran said, feedback is positive and comes from a diverse crowd: commuters, seniors, high-school students, Pacific University students and others.

Half of GroveLink’s riders flag down the bus as it passes them on the street. More than a third use it to connect with TriMet’s 57 bus. Many riders are on a first-name basis with the drivers.

In the afternoons, a number of high school students use it to get home, which helped lead to GroveLink’s first full bus Monday, Sept. 24, around 4 p.m., going south on Forest Gale Drive.

The bus is filling consistently around the same time each day in that area, Corran said. “The West loop is doing really well.”

But that raises the possibility of having to turn away riders because there are no seats available.

“We do not want to do that,” said Corran, “but safety is our first priority.”

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOODAlthough it would not be breaking the law if Ride Connection allowed standing-room passengers, its current policy forbids it, Corran said, noting that the buses aren’t yet outfitted with poles or straps that standers could grab for support.

But that doesn’t mean standing-room is out of the picture. In this time of surprises and adjustments with the relatively new GroveLink experiment, “we’re definitely talking about all these things,” Corran said. “Everything’s front and center.”

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