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Commissioners signed off on an hourly rate increase for MTR Western after cutting service hours

PMG FILE PHOTO - Large buses have proven inefficient for CC Rider due to low ridership, so the county transit department cut some lines and added more Dial-a-Ride service.Columbia County commissioners approved another rate increase for the contractor that runs the county's bus service last week.

The board agreed to pay MTR Western $73.70 per service hour, a 19% increase from the previous rate of $61.79.

The increase comes after CC Rider cut three lines with low ridership and redirected some of those driver hours to door-to-door Dial-a-Ride service.

Transit director John Dreeszen said the rate change was necessary after the service changes cut the number of service hours by almost half, going from roughly 13,000 per year down to 7,000.

Though some of the costs of providing service are hourly, there are also fixed overhead costs that don't shrink even when the hours of operation shrink, Dreeszen said.

"It costs a fixed amount to run the transit operation, and even though the county has cut routes due to the pandemic causing a decrease in ridership, fixed costs remain the same. The hourly rate had to be adjusted to compensate for that," Commissioner Henry Heimuller said in a press release describing the "restructuring" of CC Rider.

Door-to-door transit service is generally regarded as the least efficient form of public transit, but Dreeszen said he has found CC Rider to be an exception.

Low ridership on the fixed-route lines, combined with a concerted effort to combine trips with similar origins and destinations, has meant that Dial-a-Ride frequently serves more riders per hour than the now-canceled routes did.

CC Rider cut three lines, including the South County flex line that traveled between Scappoose and St. Helens.

"For the most part, we've absorbed those people and their needs into our Dial-a-Ride service," Dreeszen said.

When the department cut bus lines, they opened up Dial-a-Ride to more riders, because the service had previously been restricted to riders who had pick-up and drop-off locations relatively close to U.S. Highway 30, also signed as Columbia River Highway.

In the past, CC Rider leadership had a mindset of "if we build it, they will come … and they didn't come," Dreeszen said.

Despite the rate increase, which is retroactive to July 1, 2021, the county is saving money on CC Rider thanks to the service reductions.

County departments are expected to have a two- or three-month contingency fund, Dreeszen said.

"Transit has never had that," he noted.

The transit department has been in a deficit for years, borrowing from the county general fund each year.

But in the last fiscal year was "a watershed year" because the reduction in expenses meant CC Rider paid off the remaining $300,000 loan from the general fund and didn't have to borrow any more.

MTR Western's rate has increased significantly in recent years. In fall 2018, after drivers voted to unionize, MTR Western notified CC Rider that it would be terminating its contract a few months early.

The county put out a call for proposals from contractors, but only MTR Western applied.

In April 2019, the county approved a new contract with MTR Western for $58 per hour, compared to $40 under the previous contract.

MTR requested a rate increase just a few months later. County commissioners said they would consider a raise if a ballot measure to fund CC Rider passed, but the November 2019 measure failed.

MTR staff didn't follow up until the following February, when they requested a raise to just under $72 per hour, or $64.11 if the county moved to hire a mechanic as a county employee, rather than part of the contract with MTR.

County commissioners, frustrated with what they described as repeated incidents of MTR being unprofessional and failing to manage their own finances, voted to hire a mechanic but refused MTR's rate increase request.

Just a few months later, shortly after the pandemic began, the county approved an increase to $61.79 per hour.

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