Bus system buzzes

Additional buses will be added to the CTUIR?Transit Systems routes with the recent addition of two new routes to Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities.<br><I>Staff photo by E.J. Harris

One year after its modest beginning, the Confederated Tribes' Public Transit Program continues its outward growth, and this week added one new member - though temporarily - to its fleet.

The bus system Monday rolled out an "electric bus" for a 30-day trial, said Jim Beard, planning manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The vehicle holds a gas engine, but combines battery and generator power to save on fuel and emissions, he said. It provides a welcome alternative to the relatively costly small buses the service uses now, he added.

"Buses in the size range that we use, technology hasn't really been there to make them cost effective,"?Beard said.

The new bus is assigned this week to the "Walla Walla Whistler" route - a twice-daily round trip between Pendleton and Walla Walla, and one of two new routes that debuted in April. The other connects riders between Hermiston and the Tri-Cities, dubbed the "Tri-City Trolley."

Beard said the electric bus, acquired through the Oregon Transit Association, saves about 40 percent on fuel and cuts emissions by about 30 percent. Maintenance costs are also "reduced quite a bit,"?he added.

But the program doesn't have immediate plans to permanently add an electric bus to its fleet. While operational costs are lower, Beard said, the up-front cost to buy one is much higher.

With the new routes, the transit program is now close to the vision planners had last summer. All that's left is building off that expansion, Beard said.

"We've got all of the destinations now,"?he said. "Now it's just a matter of building up the ridership, letting people know about it."

So far, the two newest routes' numbers haven't kept pace with older ones. The Walla Walla Whistler might get five or six riders per day. The Tri-City route often carries fewer. But riders will have more opportunities come next month, Beard said. Starting July 1, the Walla Walla route will expand to three trips daily instead of the two offered most days of the week now.

Elsewhere, signs are encouraging, he said.

"It's picking up all the time,"?Beard said. "Every week we get more riders."

Beard said the system's busiest route is usually the Mission Metro, which runs six times between Pendleton and Mission each day. Those six round trips combined carry as many as 50 riders daily, he said.

The CTUIR uses four of its own buses for the system. The city of Pendleton loans another, and La Grande furnishes its own vehicle for the route there, Beard said.

The program also contracts some of its services to Pendleton's Elite Taxi, which provides drivers for many of the routes. That's been the case since the service first launched last year.

"It's essential,"?Beard said of the partnership. "We couldn't provide the amount of service we provide without somebody like Elite Taxi."

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