Starting from scratch
Former City of Wilsonville Transit Director Cynthia Thompson believes mass transit provides benefits that the average person doesn't always notice.
Because of transit, seniors who can't drive can travel to the local community center, children can attend baseball practice when their parents are busy, people who can't afford a vehicle can commute to work, and fewer cars clog the roads.
And Thompson says there aren't many communities similar in size to Wilsonville that have an independent transit agency that provides such accessible services.
"It's really evolved to be a good, solid transit system that serves a lot of people," Thompson said.
But that wasn't always true. Three decades before Wilsonville's transit provider unveiled new electric buses and celebrated its 30-year anniversary during an event last week, citizens hardly used transit while the business community footed an expensive bill.
Both gradually and all at once, the wheels turned.
'What are we paying for?'
Local business representatives' self-interested goal of lowering their own taxes eventually benefited the Wilsonville community at large.
Prior to 1989, transit in Wilsonville was nearly nonexistent. TriMet, then Wilsonville's transit provider, sent a bus route to the north side of Wilsonville (which was at the edge of TriMet's then service area) next to the Holiday Inn during peak hours and then turned back toward Portland. Meanwhile, Wilsonville businesses were paying what owners thought was an expensive 0.6% payroll tax to fund the system.
"And so they're saying 'What are we paying for?" said Ben Altman, a longtime Wilsonville resident.
Wilsonville Innovative Transportation Association, which was made up of Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce members, business leaders and City officials, started a petition to withdraw from TriMet so that the City could start its own transportation agency. And Altman said leaders from Tektronix, G.I. Joe and PayLess were particularly gung-ho about the initiative.
So the petitioners hired canvassers, set up booths at local stores and collected over 1,000 signatures. Altman conducted a survey and wrote a report showing TriMet's inadequacies, which he presented to the Wilsonville City Council. He found that the City could run a transit system for a third of the cost that TriMet required.
"Because TriMet is the whole region, their rate is to run the entire system, not just the bus to Wilsonville," Altman said.
The council unanimously endorsed the withdrawal proposal. However, it was ultimately up to the TriMet board to accept the plan. On Nov. 30, 1988, it did just that.
"I think there's no question the plan meets the local needs better than TriMet currently provides," said Pam Durham, former TriMet public information manager, at the time.
A rough start
However, there's a difference between running a transit system and running a quality transit system. And it took Wilsonville awhile to achieve the latter.
Wilsonville's agency began with just two vans that ran from Boones Ferry Road to Commerce Circle, Tektronix to Parkway Avenue, Parkway to Boeckman Road and along Wilsonville Road during commuting hours.
"I thought it was interesting. 'Oh we have four routes and 100% was east of the freeway. The west side we had nothing,'" said longtime Wilsonville resident Steve Van Wechel.
The next year, Wilsonville named its transit system WART (Wilsonville Area Rapid Transit) with an accompanying frog logo. The name was initially a running joke in City Hall but somehow gained traction.
"I don't know if it can be taken seriously," said Tom Barthel, former Wilsonville administrative analyst, in a meeting at the time.
Apparently, Arlene Loble agreed. Loble was hired as Wilsonville's city manager in 1991 and quickly learned that TriMet could take transit jurisdiction back from Wilsonville in 1994 if the City didn't invest more into it.
"No one wanted an actual transit system. The motivation was to lower the payroll tax. TriMet was on the verge of taking it over," said Charlotte Lehan, Wilsonville City Councilor.
"The first week I was there (as an interim transit director), Loble got a call from TriMet saying they were going to bring Wilsonville back into the district," Thompson said. "Arlene said, 'We have a new transit manager, give us 30 days and then we'll talk again.'"
So Loble led the charge to change the name to SMART (which was initially South Metro Area Rapid Transit before changing to South Metro Area Regional Transit), hired Thompson long-term, applied for federal grants, and pushed for the City to replace its vans with buses and fine-tune routes to put them on a more fixed schedule, as well as coordinating with TriMet's schedule so commuters could seamlessly change buses. Thompson said ridership jumped 200% when they fixed the routes.
"I remember Arlene and I met with TriMet leadership, the governor, and talked to lots of leadership, making the case that Wilsonville needed the system, that it was important and it was a positive thing. There were a lot of folks who felt it might not be," Thompson said.
The City eventually convinced TriMet that SMART was a functional enough system to continue to operate. But challenges persisted.
"You actually use this for daily service?"
SMART's buses were in less than optimal shape. SMART Fleet Manager Scott Simonton said that when he first was hired as a mechanic in 1998, the vehicles that were supposed to last 12 years were 18 years old on average, with some even older.
"At one point the Federal Transit Administration came to do a review on us for federal funding we were receiving, and they came on the premises inspecting everything and they saw this 1979 GMC bus sitting in front of the shop. And the guy said 'Do you use this for parades or special events?" Simonton said. "We said 'No, that's going to Salem in 45 minutes.' He was just amazed. 'You actually use this for daily service?'"
He added: "Road calls were pretty typical way back. Just the age of the equipment; it was really tough to keep it on the road. We were very excited when we started to see new buses coming on site."
Wilsonville's old fleet facility, which is where the current public works building is now, also left something to be desired.
"The parking lot is very small, so if you try to imagine a 35-, 40-foot bus and a couple other buses trying to line up and pull in there and originate from there, it was very tricky, very congested," said Patrick Edwards, SMART field supervisor.
Even after Wilsonville's transit agency became well-established, Thompson said tensions with TriMet simmered.
"TriMet wouldn't like that Wilsonville would talk about they were half the rate of TriMet. That was a contentious thing," she said.
And Thompson joked that finding a spare bathroom key at TriMet's Barbur Transit Center, which SMART provided services to, was one of her crowning achievements.
"I ended up finding a guy in the TriMet basement and he had the key," Thompson said. "For the drivers that was a huge win."
Wheels continue to turn
But as Wilsonville's economy strengthened and SMART began to collect more grant funding, services improved.
According to Thompson, a few turning points were the addition of the Salem route in the late 1990s, the push to guarantee that any trip in Wilsonville would take less than 10 minutes, and the additions of the WES Commuter Rail from Wilsonville to Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin and the transit center.
"That's when we converted to a hub (and spoke) system. All the buses originated from WES and go out from there and come back," Edwards said.
SMART's ridership increased from 4,700 annual rides in 1989 to 310,000 annual rides by 2008, according to City data. Ridership has largely remained flat since then, but dipped to 280,000 in 2018. SMART features seven routes and two shuttles and is gradually expanding services even more due to federal grants and House Bill 2017, which provides money to Oregon transit districts.
"When you start something like that from nothing, there's not much there. As it grew, the City and business community both thought, 'This is a good service to the public. Let's help it grow,'" Simonton said.
Altman said that since the City started to view transit as a point of pride rather than an obligation, it created a well-functioning system.
"I think they've done a great job. And if you look around, Wilsonville's been used as a really good example of good transit in other areas," he said.
As for the payroll tax, Wilsonville's was 0.3% until 2006 and then jumped to 0.5% in 2008 to help pay for the transit center on Boeckman Drive. Meanwhile, TriMet's payroll tax for other parts of the metro area has increased from 0.61% in 1990 to 0.76%.
Lehan suggested that Wilsonville's withdrawal signifies one of TriMet's predicaments. She said cities with thriving business sectors, like Wilsonville, can both afford to leave TriMet and are the most valuable to TriMet. For instance, she said a city like West Linn, which doesn't have a robust economy, does not have enough payroll tax revenue to build its own transit system.
"The unfortunate part of that for TriMet, of course, is cities like Canby, Wilsonville and Sandy (which have their own transit operations) have significant industrial development areas. They will pick up and leave and be able to provide much better transit service and leave TriMet with the West Linns of the world," Lehan
Thompson guessed that if TriMet were still running transit in Wilsonville, the transit center and the WES train would not have been possible and the routes around town wouldn't be as frequent. Meanwhile, businesses would likely pay a higher rate.
But that's impossible to say. In the current reality, Lehan said transit has become an important facet of Wilsonville's identity.
"I think it's one of the reasons we're a popular place for senior citizens is we have free transit all over town and it's used a lot by kids because it's free and it feels safe," she said. "You see high school kids, middle school kids at these bus stops without parents. It gives them the freedom to get around town without a car or a parent. It means kids grow up being comfortable with transit. It's just a natural part of their world."