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County commissioners tentatively approve suspending three routes, changing Dial-a-Ride fares

PMG FILE PHOTO - Columbia County Riders transportation advisory committee reviewed the proposed changes earlier this year. The committee meets at CC Riders Deer Island offices.Responding to changing trends in ridership, Columbia County's public transit service plans to cut three fixed-route bus lines and expand door-to-door service.

Columbia County Rider transit director John Dreeszen asked county commissioners to approve significant service changes last week. The commissioners agreed with Dreeszen's proposal and are expected to finalize the decision next week.

CC Rider's Dial-a-Ride service offers scheduled door-to-door transportation, primarily for people with mobility issues, for whom regular bus lines may be inaccessible.

CC Rider runs four routes in addition to Dial-a-Ride: Line 1, between St. Helens and Portland; Line 3, between Scappoose, St. Helens and Columbia City; Line 5, between Rainier and Longview; and Line 6, between Vernonia, Banks and Hillsboro.

Now, the department wants to stop lines 3, 5 and 6, and put more focus — and state and federal funds — on Dial-a-Ride and Line 1.

Services like Dial-a-Ride are typically the most expensive for public transit providers on a per-rider basis, since a single bus trip could carry dozens of passengers, while a Dial-a-Ride trip may only serve one or two passengers.

But lines 3, 5 and 6 have served fewer riders per hour of service than Dial-a-Ride. Even in the year preceding the pandemic, Dial-a-Ride accounted for more rides per hour than lines 5 and 6.

In early 2020, CC Rider made a set of service changes, including reducing Dial-a-Ride hours and limiting service to locations within a mile of existing fixed-route bus lines. During the pandemic, Dial-a-Ride expanded slightly to service within two miles of the highway.

"That, of course, left a fair number of people outside of the service area," Dreeszen told county commissioners last week. "So we want to try to find a middle ground to accommodate those people but also be able to recoup our costs as best as possible."

Dreeszen said the average cost of a Dial-a-Ride trip is $88, including driver time, gas, vehicle maintenance, and other overhead costs like the operators who schedule rides.

Commissioner Henry Heimuller said the discussions about service changes mimic those that have happened for decades, as CC Rider tries to maintain some services on a small budget, in a rural county.

"If there were money to be made in public transportation, it would all be done privately," Heimuller said, explaining the many expenses that drive up the cost per ride.

But with all the requirements and restrictions, similar to police and fire departments, "there's really not any money to be made. And so it ends up on the government's doorstep," Heimuller added.

"It is expensive, but so is every other transit operation throughout the country, and I think John's broken this down to about as conservative of an approach — yet still flexible — as you can get," Commissioner Casey Garrett said.

For the riders, a Dial-a-Ride trip costs $2.20 within city limits, or $4 between Scappoose and St. Helens.

Under the new proposed structure, riders could receive Dial-a-Ride services from anywhere in the county, but the price would include $0.75 per mile after the first 8 miles, on top of a base rate of $3.COLUMBIA COUNTY RIDER - A chart prepared by CC Rider transit director John Dreeszen shows ridership for three of CC Rider's fixed routes and Dial-a-Ride. Dial-a-Ride has had the highest rides per hour since late 2019, other than line 1 (St. Helens to Portland), which is not shown.

A ride is just one leg of a journey, so someone who needs a ride from home to the grocery store and then back would be booking and paying for two trips.

Dreeszen said the 8 miles included with the base charge was chosen because that would cover a trip between Scappoose and St. Helens, which is the most common trip.

CC Rider also offers a $1 discount on route fares for honored citizens, which include seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, and students. Dreeszen proposed adding that discount to Dial-a-Ride, so some riders would just pay $2.

Dreeszen said that under the proposed changes, Dial-a-Ride would be available in all the areas where the current routes would be suspended. The department also plans to expand access. Dial-a-Ride has typically had more requests than available rides, so the program has prioritized trips for medical appointments and riders with mobility issues. But Dreeszen said under the new plan, "Dial-a-Ride is available to the general public for basic rides."

With the changes, Dreeszen said, "We'll be able to maintain, if not increase, the number of Dial-a-Ride hours of service we're providing and address the relatively low ridership levels that were being accommodated by those three other lines of service."

When someone calls to request a ride, operators take down the request and then build a schedule for the day, trying to coordinate so that drivers can take multiple riders on each trip.

Dreeszen gave the example of a group of Rainier residents who all want to travel across the Columbia River to Longview, Washington, each week to grocery shop. Operators have scheduled the group to travel together, on what Dreeszen jokingly referred to as "the party bus."

"As things often happen with public transportation, and highly grant-funded programs, we have situations like this, where five years ago, a completely different plan looked like it made the most sense," Heimuller observed. "Ten years ago, a completely different plan looked like it made a lot of sense. Today, this is the plan that looks like it makes a lot of sense.

"And I can just guarantee you that five years from now, John's going to be back here with a different proposal that looks different than this."

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