Eastern Oregon public transit helps communities thrive

Thanks to Oregonians and the Statewide Transportation Improvement Fund, rural riders can make vital connections.

Harney County transit bus
Harney County has 10 buses that help rural residents get places they need to go.

Public transit is alive and well in eastern Oregon’s Harney County. It wasn’t too long ago that the financial picture there was pretty cloudy, but today the transit system’s skies have cleared.

Here’s how it happened.

In the “old days,” public transit in Harney County was restricted to a dial-a-ride service related to the Harney County Senior and Community Services Center. In 2004, the system was made up of three buses, their drivers and one dispatcher. Folks in the area called it the “senior bus.”

By 2017, the service was delivering some 4,000 rides per month in a county with a population of 5,000. It morphed into a fixed route system – like urban transit systems – with a regular, dependable schedule. As state and federal funds grew, so did the demand. Soon, more buses were added (a total of 10 today) and the bus barn began bursting at the seams. 

With continued growth in service, there became just one problem: money. The person at the helm, Angie Lamborn, executive director of the Harney County Senior and Community Services Center, invited ODOT Regional Transit Coordinator Frank Thomas for a technical assistance visit.

 “Looking at her budget, I saw she was six or seven months from having to make cuts, and she was seeking advice on how to prioritize aspects of the service and gracefully unwind others,” Thomas said. “That was alarming.”

It was a classic case of a cash flow problem.

In stepped Oregonians and the state’s new Statewide Transportation Improvement Fund – a payroll tax of .01% on wages paid to employees in Oregon, approved by the legislature in 2017. Lamborn and company applied those funds to new bus bays and fixed routes, and things quickly improved. 

“By the close of fiscal year 2018, the projected budget deficit had largely been resolved,” said Thomas. “In anticipation of the Statewide Transportation Improvement Fund, Harney County was able to sustain the route deviation service in fiscal year 2019 on a fare-free basis. By design it ran six days a week and served the nearby Burns Paiute Tribe’s reservation in coordination with its Tribal Transit program. In fiscal year 2020, the fund enabled Harney County to generate the local match necessary to complete its bus barn expansion project.”

Today, things are looking up for Harney County transit. The financial test appears to be in the background. “The partnership and support from ODOT and the education and time given by Frank has been invaluable,” said Lamborn. “It feels comforting knowing we have the support and team to be successful.”