Mass transit is big-city fixture, but rural ride-sharing could soon be making a surge in Eastern Oregon.
Morrow and Umatilla county commissioners held a joint meeting Wednesday to hear a presentation about transit strategies for the region, which looked at the needs in each county for getting people to work, and some possible shuttle services that the counties could implement.
Commissioners from both boards said they will likely approve the plan at meetings later this month.
The Portland planning firm Kittleson and Associates spent about two years collecting data to complete the transit study, which included a breakdown of how many people work in each county, the major employers in each, the percentage of people that live and work in the same county versus those that commute, and the public transportation options currently available in each county.
The bulk of the report, which is available on both counties’ websites, was devoted to identifying several transit strategies to target the region’s current needs, along with each strategy’s priority level and a time frame in which it could be implemented (near-term or long-term). Five potential new bus or shuttle services were identified, as well as two that would modify existing services. The services included four high-priority projects: transit from Boardman to Hermiston, from Pendleton to Kennewick, from Heppner to Boardman, and a shuttle within the Port of Morrow. The report also included a strategy for a shuttle from Arlington to Boardman, ranked as a medium-level priority.
The report also offered plans to modify existing services between Grant County and Pendleton, using the existing transit service, Grant County People Mover.
Principal planner Matt Hughart noted that statewide, 8 percent of households have zero cars. The same is true for Umatilla County, and in Morrow County, only 3 percent of households have no access to a vehicle.
Hughart also broke down the numbers of people that travel between counties to get to work.
Only 37 percent of Morrow County’s workforce lives there, with about 28 percent commuting from Umatilla County.
Sixty-six percent of Umatilla County’s workforce lives in the county but, as Hughart noted, people frequently travel across the county to get to work. Hughart said the strategies address all targeted areas where there is a significant need, and that would serve the largest number of households and workforce.
According to the study, all of the strategies could be implemented by existing transit companies, such as The Loop in Morrow County or Kayak in Umatilla County.
Although the report laid out several specific transit strategies that the two counties could implement, Hughart said none of the details are set in stone.
He added that while plans could be implemented separately, they would be most beneficial to the region if they function as pieces of one larger system.
“They really should be considered as layers — all implemented one on top of the other,” he said.
The report included cost estimates to implement all the strategies. Hughart noted that the cost to implement the Boardman-Hermiston shuttle was on the higher side — $250,000 to $300,000 — but would likely be the most utilized.
The funds would come from some statewide payroll taxes: the Statewide Transportation Improvement Fund (STIF), and the Special Transportation Fund.
Morrow County Planning Director Carla McLane said though both commissions may approve the plan this month, it may take some time to start implementing the strategies.
“I think the real question is, how much money is actually being collected through the tax program, and how much is going back to the local communities?” She said. “And which projects will we prioritize?”
McLane said there are STIF Advisory Committees in both Umatilla and Morrow counties that will make recommendations to the boards of commissioners about which projects are most relevant to the area. Though the strategies have been formulated for both counties, each county will approve the plan separately, and can make changes to it individually.
The report also suggested setting up park-and-ride areas, which would allow people in rural areas to commute to a more central location in their own vehicles, and then take public transit to work. Though it identified park-and-ride areas as lower priority projects, Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said such areas could be beneficial to the region.
“It’’s about education and habit,” he said. “We don’t live in an area that embraces anything other than driving your own vehicle — I don’t think people think about that. So I appreciate the inclusion of park-and-ride.”
To collect commuting data, the firm surveyed businesses in Umatilla and Morrow counties, asking employers about the number of full-time employees at the company, the hours of operation, whether the company offers any type of ride-sharing program and if they think employees would utilize such a service. Twenty-seven businesses and groups from both counties participated in the survey, including many of the largest employers: Hermiston and Pendleton school districts, Good Shepherd Medical Center, St. Anthony Hospital, Blue Mountain Community College, Wildhorse Resort and Casino, and Port of Morrow Warehousing. Employers were surveyed, but individual employees did not provide information.
Umatilla County Commissioner Bill Elfering said while he thinks the plan is a good start, the second component is growing the workforce.
“I think this may help, but will it create a new worker? I don’t know,” he said.
Commissioners from both boards said they were happy with the increased inter-county collaboration.
“I think it’s our third joint meeting, and I look forward to more,” said Morrow County Commissioner Melissa Lindsay.