Editorial: Transit system fills need but funding is difficult

Despite a very rocky beginning for its Bend system, the region’s Cascades East Transit is filling a need. In fact, according to an article on the NBC news website, ridership in the regional system rose by 23 percent in the 12 months ending in March 2012.

Yet money is an issue, and until the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council, which operates Cascades East, can find a permanent source of operating funds, the system is in jeopardy.

Currently the system is financed in part by $1 million annually from the city of Bend — money the city has agreed to pay only until 2015. That money is spent on fixed-route service within the city limits, a system that now serves nearly 500,000 riders per year. Another 19,000 or so ride CET buses outside the city each month.

Cascades East runs on-demand bus service in communities throughout the region, a commuter shuttle system that connects riders from Warm Springs to La Pine and Sisters to Prineville, and specialty buses that take riders to Mount Bachelor in winter and to the Deschutes River in summer. Funding for those operations comes from a variety of sources, including federal grants.

Even with outside funding, however, the city of Bend provides nearly half the transit system’s annual budget, and it’s clear that money must be replaced. While it’s tempting to say that unless the system can pay for itself on fares, it should be abandoned. Yet that’s no solution at all. Public transit, after all, serves people who generally have no other means of getting around.

Instead, Cascades East and its parent, COIC, must find a regional means of supporting a system that serves nearly every community in Central Oregon. But one of the options, creating a new tri-county taxing district, could be difficult to sell to voters in this economy. There’s only one way to answer that question. Put it to a vote.