MILTON-FREEWATER — Milton-Freewater voters will get the choice to maintain the city’s affordable transportation services in May after the city council voted unanimously Monday to put an option tax on the ballot to fund its cheap taxi and free bus services for the next five years.

According to City Manager Linda Hall, the city saw just how valuable those services were during last week’s floods.

When rising Walla Walla River waters threatened the city’s levee, all residents east of Highway 11 and South Main Street were evacuated. For those in the evacuation zone that were disabled or had other difficulties leaving, a city bus from the program was there to transport them for free.

“For a small, rural city of our size, those services are so valuable,” Hall said.

The program, which has been in place since 1971, usually provides seniors 60 years or older and people with disabilities of any age with a cheap door-to-door taxi for just $1 per ride. Since the early 2000s, the program has also provided a free bus that makes three round trips to Walla Walla, Washington, and back each weekday.

According to documents provided by the city, the programs have provided an average of over 10,000 rides per year. Many of those rides are used for essential trips to work, medical appointments, grocery stores and more.

The tax is projected to raise $60,000, or less than 19%, of the more than $310,000 it costs to operate the programs each year. The tax is set to remain at the same rate it has since 1971 of 37 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. At that rate, someone with a home assessed at $75,000 would pay $27.75 per year for the program.

Hall said the costs of operating the transportation programs have gone up 400% since being implemented in 1971, and so the remaining costs after tax revenue is paid for by a combination of county, state and federal grants.

“It takes a lot to keep these programs running,” she said.

Also on Monday, the council approved a contract with Anderson Perry & Associates for the design and engineering of sidewalk and road improvements in the city.

The city is planning to use its funding to make improvements to a sidewalk on North Elizabeth Street and Northeast Dahlia Street, the Southwest Eighth Avenue sidewalk and overlay, along with the overlay at Chestnut Street, 12th Avenue and Walnut Street.

Hall said the project was earmarked for $3 million in Oregon’s 2017 transportation bill, which allocated a total of $5.3 billion around the state, thanks to the support of Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner.

The costs of the agreement with Anderson Perry & Associates cannot exceed $130,000, Hall said, and the projects must be completed before August 2027 in order for the city to receive the state’s funding.

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