Jordan Ohlde has had an easier time riding buses in Bend during the past month.

Ohlde was born with cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. He also relies on Cascades East Transit, which provides bus service in Bend and surrounding cities.

Getting on and off most city buses is time-consuming for riders in wheelchairs. The bus driver has to lower a lift to help riders in wheelchairs board one at a time, then attaches straps to the wheelchair and to the floor so the chair doesn’t move around. It usually takes about five minutes, Ohlde said — that’s five minutes the bus is stopped and all other passengers and drivers behind the bus are also delayed.

But since Nov. 30, that wait has been cut down to about two minutes on three high-use routes, Ohlde said, because of new buses that have lower floors and the ability to be lowered close to the curb. Riders who use wheelchairs, walkers or strollers can board without help from the driver.

“I can get on the bus more independently than before,” Ohlde said.

The new buses are now used on Route 7, which runs east on Greenwood Avenue from Third Street and loops around St. Charles Bend; Route 10, which runs through downtown and by Oregon State University-Cascades; and Route 11, which runs along Galveston Avenue and around OSU-Cascades. A fourth low-floor bus is expected this spring.

Bend’s new buses look more like typical city buses than most of the Cascades East Transit fleet, even with their lower floors. They have both a front and back door, so passengers can get off while others board, and they have steps up to a raised seating area in the back.

The front part of each bus has two rows of seats that can fold up to allow a wheelchair to be strapped in.

When a bus pulls to a stop where a person is in a wheelchair, pushing a stroller or using a cane or walker, the driver can lower the body of the bus so it is even with a curb. The driver can then extend a ramp to the curb, so people using wheelchairs can roll onto the bus themselves. Straps are already attached to the bus, so drivers just have to hook them to the wheelchair.

Passengers like the new buses so far, said Cascades East Transit driver Rick Uptain. Uptain has worked with the transit company for about a year and said he prefers the new buses, too.

“It’s so nice to drive,” Uptain said. “It’s like the difference between a Cadillac and a Chevrolet to me.”

The new buses are also more expensive than previous buses. At about $400,000 a bus, they’re about double the cost of previous buses.

Funding for the first three buses came from the Oregon Department of Transportation and Bend’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, an intergovernmental group made up of representatives from the city of Bend, Deschutes County and the state, Transportation Manager Michelle Rhoads said. The fourth bus will be paid for with an Oregon Regional Solutions grant, she said.

The new buses improve efficiency and the dignity of riders, Rhoads said. Making it easier for riders with disabilities to use the bus system will help not only them but also other passengers and people driving cars, she said.

“At the end of the day, this is about the future of our transportation,” Rhoads said.

James Dorofi, chairman of the Old Farm District Neighborhood Association, rides city buses with his service dog, Nico. Dorofi can’t drive because of a seizure disorder, so he walks, bikes or uses buses to get around.

The old buses were essentially “glorified airport shuttles” with little space for Nico to sit with him, he said. On the new buses, Dorofi and his service dog can fit even with other riders in wheelchairs or with their own service animals.

He said Bend leaders should recognize that many people already need public transit and many more people will start relying on public transportation or individual ride-hailing services as autonomous car technology develops during the next several years. Regional transportation plans should include paying for buses and making safer routes for bikes and pedestrians, he said.

“The reality is that the future of transportation is not someone going and buying a Ford Taurus and driving it to and from work,” Dorofi said.

But because Bend’s buses aren’t used to the same extent as buses in other cities, some local politicians don’t support spending public money on them. Bend City Councilor Bill Moseley, who also serves as chairman of Bend’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, opposed using the organization’s money to pay for buses.

On Wednesday, Moseley said he has nothing against providing varieties of transit, but that he wants to be sure it’s the best use of Bend’s money. Government-funded services that allow transit users with disabilities to call a ride directly may work better than buying $400,000 buses, he said.

Money that might have been used to pay for buses is being held in an ODOT account until the Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board makes a decision later this year, Program Technician Jovi Anderson said in an email. The policy board will likely discuss what to do with that money at some point before July, she said.

Councilor Barb Campbell, who also serves on the Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board and supported buying the buses, said the new buses help traffic flow where the city can’t afford to construct bus pullouts. Without pullouts, drivers behind buses have to wait as buses unload and reload passengers.

“Sitting behind a bus is one of those reasons why you in Bend might be experiencing a delay,” Campbell said.

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