Transit in Central Oregon has never had a dedicated funding source — until now.
A payroll tax approved by the Legislature in 2017 could pay for proposed transit projects such as establishing a bus route within the city of Redmond, adding more evening, weekend and midday trips for routes between cities, adding two new bus routes in Bend and more.
Tammy Baney, the executive director of Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council, which contracts with Central Oregon’s three counties and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to provide transit services, said she was thrilled to finally have a way to fund transit in the region. Previously, the agency depended on piecemeal contributions from cities and grants.
“It’s a miracle that the system has been able to survive as it has, and that’s been great leadership and a lot of community will,” Baney said. “This (payroll tax) will be able to set a foundation that we can build upon for decades.”
The tax, which sets aside one-tenth of 1% of all payroll generated, will provide Central Oregon’s three counties and Warm Springs with an estimated $8.8 million by the fall. Baney said this number is larger than what counties should normally expect on an annual basis because it’s the total from two and a half years of payroll tax instead of just one year.
According to Baney, all payroll tax taken has to go back to expanding transit services in the community from which its generated. Because Deschutes County’s economy is larger than its neighboring counties, it should expect to receive more funding — an estimated $7.57 million will go to Central Oregon’s largest county.
Transportation advisory groups from each county and the tribes determine how to spend their expected transit money, and each entity has generated a ranked list of proposed transit projects. This summer, the Oregon Public Transit Advisory Committee will review these lists and decide which projects to approve, according to Baney. The advisory committee would then make recommendations to the Oregon Transportation Commission — of which Baney is the chairwoman — and the commission would likely dole out the funding later that fall.
Most approved projects won’t be completed until mid-2020 at the earliest, and likely 2021 for projects that require purchasing new buses, according to Derek Hofbauer, COIC’s outreach and engagement administrator.
Many projects on the lists of all four areas are expanding services between cities. In many of these proposed projects, counties are sharing the costs. For example, Jefferson and Deschutes counties would split the combined $367,608 to add more round trips — including one later in the evening and three on Saturdays — for the Madras-Redmond route.
Other intercity routes that could receive more trips, either on Saturdays, evenings or midday, include Warm Springs- Madras, Prineville-Redmond, Bend-Redmond, Sisters-Bend and La Pine-Bend. Some of these would require purchasing new buses, which likely wouldn’t arrive until fall 2020 at the earliest, Hofbauer said. Additional routes that can be operated using existing vehicles, such as Saturday trips, could start sooner.
Baney said beefing up routes between Central Oregon’s cities will help those who commute around the region for work.
“The cost of an individual vehicle is very expensive,” she said. “If we can provide, as a region, reliable, consistent transportation that gets people out of their vehicle, which is costly with gas and maintenance, and onto a system that meets their needs, I think that’s a success.”
Routes within cities would also be improved or created under the counties’ proposed projects. Redmond could receive its first bus route, at a cost of $565,000, with two buses driving a circular route with on-demand service for five hours every weekday. Hofbauer said the exact route of the proposed Redmond bus service hasn’t been determined and could start as soon as early 2021.
Deschutes County also plans to use about $1.7 million to add frequency to three routes in Bend, ideally lowering wait times to 15-20 minutes between buses. Those routes are 1 and 4, which travel south and north on Third Street from Midtown Bend, and route 7, which travels from Midtown down Greenwood Avenue to St. Charles Bend and the Forum shopping center.
Bend may also receive two brand-new routes, one serving southeast Bend and one serving northeast Bend. There may also be a new short route from Hawthorne Station to downtown Bend, although that could be an addition to an existing route.
Two other proposed projects — a new route only traveling around La Pine and to Sunriver, and the purchasing of a bus for future trips between Warm Springs and Government Camp — could help with work commutes, Hofbauer said.
“There’s really a need for more jobs in Warm Springs,” he said. “(Mt. Hood Skibowl) wants to hire more Warm Springs tribal members, but transportation is a really big barrier.”
Other ideas offered by the counties include creating a reduced-fare program for low-income riders, replacing aging buses with low-emission and/or low-floor, wheelchair-friendly buses, making pedestrian and transit improvements to Hawthorne Station and hiring more staff to support extra services.
Baney said she’s looking forward to the continued improvements to Central Oregon’s transit with the new payroll tax.
“I think this will be able to expand services well beyond what we could’ve imagined, but there’s still a lot of work to do,” she said.
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