William Rowe worried he’d be late as he waited outside the Roseburg Public Library on a warm Thursday afternoon in July for the UTrans bus he needed to take him to work at Taco Bell.
The Roseburg bus is scheduled to arrive at each of its stops once per hour, but it was running late that day.
Rowe, who lives off Diamond Lake Boulevard, rides the UTrans bus frequently — sometimes several times a day, sometimes three days a week. He rides to visit his girlfriend and run errands. He used to ride to Umpqua Community College classes.
Driving isn’t an option for Rowe.
“First, cars are expensive and I can’t afford one right now. Second, I am easily overwhelmed and can’t handle driving on a busy road,” he said.
Rowe’s not alone in his need for public transit. Each year, Douglas County residents take between 100,000 and 160,000 UTrans bus rides. Also growing is the demand for Dial-a-Ride services, which provide door-to-door transport for seniors and disabled riders and also allow others to fill any empty seats. More than 6,200 people are registered users of that program, and every month sees an average of between 50 and 90 new signups.
Like many of the bus riders who spoke to The News-Review, Rowe wished the bus would turn up more frequently. He was glad to hear the Douglas County Transportation District, the new government body in charge of public transit, intends to have the bus arrive at each stop every half hour by 2020. It’s one of many steps the fledgling district is taking into what its leaders hope will be a bright future for transit service in the county.
BUMPS IN THE ROAD
There have been some growing pains.
For 10 months after the district’s formation and seven months after its first board was elected, the district was without money. It had no tax base and no way to pay for the initial costs of setting up a district.
The county hung onto its state and federal transportation dollars, citing a need to manage the grant money and contracts through the end of the fiscal year. After months of wrangling over terms, the county finally agreed in May to set aside $20,000 to reimburse the district for startup costs.
While the district struggled to gain its footing, the United Community Action Network, which previously contracted to operate the UTrans bus service for the county, stepped into the breach. It will provide administrative services and continue to operate the bus system for the next two years, and that’s ensured uninterrupted service while the transformation is underway.
The buses may be slow, but they’re still running their routes.
A week ago, transportation board Chairman Mike Baker said the district’s first check, for $67,000 in Special Transportation Funds from the state, was finally in the mail. It’s a check that will come around on a quarterly basis from here on out. There’s more money to come. After the county closes its books, it’s expected to have about $250,000 left over to pass on to the district in the fall. And the district will receive $1.4 million in state and federal funding to make improvements like adding routes and stops.
Two years from now, the district hopes to have a building of its own, rather than using UCAN as its district headquarters. The district will also operate the bus system directly, employing 30 people in jobs from bus drivers to dispatchers to administrators. Dial-a-Ride services, though, will likely continue to be contracted out to the collection of cities and other entities that currently run them.
The transitional difficulties have not dimmed Baker’s optimism. He said he approaches each challenge as just another bump in the road.
“My attitude has just been I know I’m going to hit these things and just keep plugging along. You just can’t let that obstacle get to you or overwhelm what you’re trying to accomplish. Just keep your eye on the ball and keep going,” Baker said.
Transportation board member Kat Stone’s assessment is less cheerful. She said the county should have coughed up some funds sooner so the district wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on UCAN. Rather than growing pains, she likens the district’s situation to something darker.
“We’re actually suffering like abused children,” she said, “but once we get out from under the county I feel like we can get a lot more done.”
Board member John Parker said it’s hard for the transportation board to take over when the county’s been unwilling to hand over its funds. The district can’t magically print its own money, he said. He said he’s glad for UCAN’s help in the absence of county money.
“I mean, you know, the county completely dicked us, so having somebody there that can actually provide something and actually wants to provide something for us is definitely beneficial,” he said.
But the county’s former transportation services manager, Dennis Pinheiro, who is now an independent contractor working with the district, said ultimately both the county and the district wanted the same thing. The county wanted to rid itself of transportation, and both entities wanted the transportation district to take over, he said.
But the timeline just didn’t work well, he said. State and federal grants had been awarded through June 30, and the state didn’t have the manpower to rewrite all the contracts just so the district could take them over a few months early. So the Oregon Department of Transportation determined that the county should maintain control until June 30, and that left the county stuck holding onto money and control it no longer wanted, Pinheiro said.
It also meant that even after the transportation district was named the qualified entity in April to receive grant funding, that funding wouldn’t come to them until July 1, at the earliest.
The county is currently obligated to give contracted providers time to submit bills for reimbursement and to make sure all those are paid before closing out its books and transferring any remaining funds to the district, Pinheiro said.
Pinheiro said he thought the county was just being overly cautious in deciding not to share ahead of time some of the $250,000 the county’s likely to have left over.
“I think they could have been more forthright in maybe saying, hey here’s like $50,000, yeah. I think they probably should have, you know. But then I also understand if they had hesitations and reservations about the legalities of just giving a new entity funding because bottom line was they were on the hook for that money,” Pinheiro said.
Douglas County didn’t have the advantage of having other models to look to.
Coos County is the only other county in the state that has recently begun the shift to operating transportation through an independent district. That county’s earlier in its transition. The district’s been formed, but a board of directors won’t be elected until November.
In contrast with Douglas County’s transportation services, Coos County Area Transit is a full-fledged county department that operates bus service, dial-a-ride service and paratransit all with county employees.
CCAT Public Transit Manager Sergio Gamino anticipates the transition won’t be too difficult there. The CCAT staff will remain the same, he said. They will just report to a new seven-person governing body instead of the commissioners.
“But because the operations are not going to change and the service to the community is going to remain essentially unchanged I think the transition will be seamless,” Gamino said.
Looking forward, some board members want to change Douglas County Transportation District’s name to Umpqua Public Transportation District. The current name has left many with the incorrect impression that the district is a county government department when it is really a completely independent body with its own elected board, several board members said. Some are also under the mistaken impression that the district has something to do with roads.
Baker said a public hearing will be held before a decision is made on the new name. He said he likes it because the first letters of the first two words spell UP, which can be played up in marketing the district.
“We think by making that change it still describes the area that we’re at and that it’s public transportation that we’re doing, and we also kinda like that UP in the acronym because it’s a moving forward type designation,” he said.
So what does the district most need moving forward? Riders told The News-Review they’d like to see the bus arrive every half hour. A few suggested every 15 minutes. Some also said they’d appreciate evening and Saturday service.
Some of those improvements are expected within the next year or two. Others will have to wait.
Transportation District Manager Cheryl Cheas, who is also a UCAN employee, said the district will increase the number of stops in Roseburg in 2020 so that a bus arrives at each stop every half hour instead of every hour. Saturday hours are also planned for the Roseburg bus, as is adding a bus stop at the social security office.
The district also plans to create regular weekly connections to other transit services. New Lifeline Routes would include a Monday stop in Cottage Grove that would enable riders to connect with Lane County transit and head into Eugene. Also planned is the addition of a Wednesday stop in Wolf Creek connecting with Josephine County transit. Wednesday riders could use that connection to reach Grants Pass, or even to connect with buses heading to Medford or Ashland.
Other plans in the works include creating a 20-year master plan and increasing pay for bus drivers, who are hard to recruit and retain with a $13 an hour starting salary, Cheas said. In Grants Pass, for comparison, the bus drivers are pulling down $16 an hour and in Medford and Eugene, it’s $20, Cheas said. Currently, they’re so short on drivers that on any given day it’s likely one of the four office staff members is out driving.
“Today I’m the next batter up. If we have one more driver go out today I’ll be driving a route this afternoon,” Cheas said. On a day like that, her own work won’t get done.
“You can’t write a grant from the driver’s seat,” she said.
Another consequence of the driver shortage is a delay in a plan to provide better daily coverage in Winston and Sutherlin, with the addition of a Dillard connection to the Winston route and an Oakland connection to the Sutherlin route.
Whatever the improvements ahead — buses that transport riders farther and faster — it’s clear the bus service is a big help to many right now, no matter how imperfect it is.
Riders on that warm Thursday in July said that without the bus they’d have lengthy walks or bicycle rides to reach work or the doctor.
Shakota and Will Weidman of Roseburg cuddled together as they settled in for the ride to Will Weidman’s mental health appointment at Compass Behavioral Health. Partway through their long journey, they began to worry they’d be late and the appointment would be canceled.
The Weidmans also rely on the bus to get to work. He works at McMenamins, while she works at McDonald’s. Shakota Weidman wishes the bus, which makes its last stops between 5 and 6 p.m., was available later in the evening. She can ride to work, but has to walk home when her shift is done.
That’s not easy, because Shakota’s still dealing with the impact of an accident she was in three months ago. She was riding a moped and was the victim of a hit-and-run by the driver of a pickup.
The couple recently moved to the area and said the bus service was cheaper and better in Springfield, Missouri, with the buses picking up passengers every 15 minutes at each stop.
Despite its flaws, the Weidmans said they love and appreciate the bus.
“I’m so grateful they have public transportation in a small town like this,” Shakota Weidman said.