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Clatsop bus provider looks toward a prosperous new year

The district has been rebuilt from near financial collapse in the early 2010s
By Edward Stratton

The Daily Astorian

Published on December 26, 2017 8:25AM

Steve Smith prepares to drive a bus route within the Sunset Empire Transportation District.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

Steve Smith prepares to drive a bus route within the Sunset Empire Transportation District.

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Monique Gaudry and Christian Chiappetta ride a Sunset Empire bus in Astoria.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

Monique Gaudry and Christian Chiappetta ride a Sunset Empire bus in Astoria.

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Steve Smith, left, makes a stop on his route with Sunset Empire as a passenger boards the bus.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

Steve Smith, left, makes a stop on his route with Sunset Empire as a passenger boards the bus.

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A bus driver waits for passengers at the Sunset Empire Transit Station in Astoria.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

A bus driver waits for passengers at the Sunset Empire Transit Station in Astoria.

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Director Jeff Hazen has a fairly sizable list of New Year’s resolutions for the Sunset Empire Transportation District — track buses online, pay fares electronically, add weekend service in Astoria and improve connections with Clatsop County’s neighbors.

And with a huge infusion of money on the way starting next year from the state, the bus agency looks poised to reach many of its goals as it continues to recover from the financial disaster of several years ago.

First up for Hazen is taking a proposal before Sunset Empire’s seven-member board of directors next month to add online bus tracking for passengers through an app called Swiftly.

Doug Pilant, general manager of the Tillamook County Transportation District, said the agency receives 90 percent fewer calls from customers wondering where the bus is.

“The technology collects and stores actual route times in a database,” Pilant said. “We used the Swiftly technology to update our route schedules on a stop-by-stop basis in an effort to improve on-time performance.”

Sunset Empire is looking at a program called TouchPass for electronic fares, taking the lead for the rural agencies in the Northwest Oregon Transit Alliance. The program is already in use by the Rogue Valley Transportation District.

“I would like that to be in place by the end of June, ideally, if I can pull it off,” Hazen said.

Hazen joined Sunset Empire in 2014 after retiring from Costco, where he said the motto is to see how little a product can be sold for.

In that vein, Hazen said, he is trying to lower the fare cost — fares make up about 15 percent of the transit district’s funding — and move people toward buying bus passes instead of individual tickets.

“Ideally, I’ll do this in conjunction with the e-fares,” he said. “People can buy passes at the transit center or through an app, so bus drivers can focus on driving people.” Buying passes on the bus “really slows down the movement of buses, especially around the first of the month.”

The $5.3 billion transportation package recently passed by the state Legislature included an estimated $1 billion for public transit through a 0.1 percent payroll tax starting next year. The state’s Legislative Revenue Office projected more than $695,000 would be collected in the first six months of the new tax in Sunset Empire’s district by 2019, when the money would be available.

The tax, known as the State Transportation Improvement Fund, is estimated to add about $8 million over the next 10 years, a sizable bump to Sunset Empire’s $3.5 million annual budget.

“It has to be used for improvement of service,” Hazen said of the state’s cash infusion. “They want to see improvements in service to the riders.”

Sunset Empire recently announced the expansion of service in South County, including four connections with Tillamook County buses in Cannon Beach. The agency hopes to expand service throughout the region, including weekend service on buses running through Hammond and Warrenton to the large Emerald Heights Apartment complex on the eastern edge of Astoria, Hazen said.

“We’re adding a more robust circulator route in Warrenton and Hammond, so that Route 101 can stay on 101,” he said.

Sunset Empire nearly collapsed in 2010, when former Director Cindy Howe left amid accusations of theft and official misconduct. The district was in near financial ruin, laying off staff and cutting service at one point to only two routes to stay afloat. Howe pleaded guilty in 2013 to two counts of first-degree theft and official misconduct.

Jay Flint helped rebuild the district from 2011 until leaving in 2014 for a job at a Seaside law firm. Hazen took over from interim director Diana Bartolotta in 2014 after she also left for another position.

Hazen recently applied and was a finalist for another transportation director’s position in Lewis County, Washington. The move was about a higher salary, along with the ability to take part in building a new transit center for Lewis County, he said.

He owns a home in Westport and said he has no interest in moving.

“I’m happy I’m staying here, because I’m excited about the challenge and opportunity of this new funding source,” he said. “What a game-changer it’s going to be.”







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