Eastern Oregon is reaping the benefits of the state’s payroll tax for public transit.
Umatilla County, Morrow County and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation were among the first 18 transit providers whose applications were approved to receive Statewide Transportation Improvement Fund money. Union, Wallowa, Baker, Grant and Harney counties were also on the list.
The funds come from a one-tenth of 1 percent payroll tax instituted as part of the legislature’s 2017 transportation package. The money is to be dedicated to public transit improvements, from adding routes to upgrading bus fleets.
Bob Waldher, director of Umatilla County’s department of land use planning, said Umatilla County is eligible to pull in nearly $1 million per year. As a result of its first application, the county will receive $398,000 in 2019, $692,000 in 2020, and $794,000 in 2021 to fund 11 projects recommended by the county’s STIF advisory board. The seven-person board currently has one opening.
“In Umatilla County, the funding will help fund projects that improve and expand public transit for seniors and the disabled, low-income families, and the county’s growing workforce population,” Waldher said in an email.
Some of the money will go toward creating a new Hermiston to Boardman route by Kayak Public Transit that would connect cities in western Umatilla County with employment at the Port of Morrow.
Another project listed in the application will provide half-price taxi rides within the Hermiston, Stanfield, Umatilla and Echo area for people traveling between their home and their place of employment.
Milton-Freewater will also subsidize taxi rides for people traveling from their home to their workplace, in addition to using some of the STIF dollars to expand their bus service to Saturdays.
Pendleton will use some of the funds to expand its dial-a-ride service to a deviated fixed-route bus system serving the general population.
Anita Pranger, Morrow County transportation coordinator, said Morrow County expects to see about $104,000 in 2019 and about $221,000 in 2020.
She said the funding will help create a fixed-route bus system in the county for the first time. She envisions starting out with the Boardman-to-Hermiston route in partnership with Kayak Public Transit and Umatilla County, and then eventually expanding to Heppner and maybe even Arlington. As part of that, the money could help pay for bus stops, signs, education campaigns, a full-time dispatcher, mobile data transmitters on buses and other upgrades.
“There are things in Morrow County we are going to grow for the first time,” she said.
Prager said the new STIF funds coming into Morrow County and other parts of Eastern Oregon will help rural areas better serve their residents who can’t afford a vehicle or can’t drive for other reasons.
The $50,000 awarded to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation will help with administrative costs for Kayak Public Transit to tackle the Boardman-to-Hermiston route. Money awarded to the counties will also be funneled back to Kayak to purchase two new buses for the route.
JD Tovey, tribal planning director, said it usually takes roughly 18 months for new buses to arrive after they are ordered, so the new route won’t be up and running right away. During the wait the project’s partners will have time to plan routes, stops and schedules so that they will best serve riders.
According to the Oregon Transportation Committee, the 18 applications approved last week will help support 207 million new trips on public transit during the 2019-21 biennium.