'It's safe, pedestrian friendly, well-lit, nicely landscaped and it has public parking'"It's not just a bus station - it's exactly what people said they wanted three years ago," said Cindy Howe, executive director of the Sunset Empire Transportation District, describing the Sunset Empire Transit Center that was dedicated Saturday.

"It's safe, pedestrian friendly, well-lit, nicely landscaped and it has public parking," she said.

Howe was a member of the board when the transit district was formed. In 1997, she contracted to serve as the district's administrator and in 1999 was hired as executive director. "It's so great to ... know we finished the project and can move on. There's relief, too, because there were a lot of obstacles," she said.

The idea for a transit center surfaced in 1996, when the Oregon Department of Transportation asked the district to look into it. Howe said in 1998 the project began its long journey to completion when U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Furse, D-Ore., "stepped up to the plate and got it into a federal highway bill," securing $225,000 to design the facility.

In 1999, Congress appropriated $300,000 to be used for acquiring property for the transit center and meetings were held to get public input on the center's design. In Bob Gannaway, right, helps artist Greg Thorpe unveil the new artwork for the Transit Center.

KIM ERSKINE - The Daily AstorianAugust, 2001, Fred Kent of the National Project for Public Spaces held a workshop to encourage local citizens thinking creatively about "building a town center with some transit on it" and a month later a symbolic hole-filling ceremony was held to kick off the design and construction phase of the transit center.

That same year, another $1.9 million was secured to pay for buying the building, finishing construction and buying Lewis and Clark shuttle buses and shelters.

From day one, including purchase of the property, design and construction, the cost totaled $2.6 million, Howe said. Along the way, Howe was able to secure state grants to provide almost all of the 20-percent matches required for the federal grants, so local property taxpayers had to come up with only about $25,000 - a "minute" part of the match, Howe said proudly.

The Sunset Empire Transit Center is the official bus stop for The Bus, as the transit district's brightly colored blue and yellow buses are called, as well as for any buses from Portland and elsewhere that want to use it. It will serve as a hub for regional shuttle buses, taxis, the Lewis and Clark Explorer Shuttle, the Astoria Riverfront Trolley and the Astoria Riverwalk.

Its parking lot has 28 spaces and a paved courtyard. The lot is lined with trees and illuminated by historic street lights. Some of the spaces are reserved for employees of neighboring businesses and the rest are for the public. During weekends, all of the spaces are for the public.

Buses load and unload at bus bays behind the building and bus shelters with benches are provided for people waiting to meet or board the buses. Lewis and Clark banners are up in the parking lot and there's a huge sign on the building with the Lewis and Clark logo, letting people know it's the place to go for information. The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration is expected to attract thousands of extra visitors to this area.

Formerly called the "intermodal" center, the name was shortened to transit center by the time the sign went up on the former Ocean Beauty fish processing plant at Ninth Street and Marine Drive in April. Howe said the historical character of the building, constructed in 1940 as the Kendall Bottling Co. and later sold to Van Dusen Beverages, was carefully maintained during the remodeling.

It provides office space for the transit center and has a waiting room with a view and a meeting room that can be used by the public. It also has a public restroom, a break room for bus drivers, vending machines selling snacks, and racks for business cards and brochures. Bus tickets and passes and shuttle bus tickets to Fort Clatsop are on sale there.

Construction of the transit center took 40 weeks. Howe said she knows because a construction report came out every week with the number stamped at the top. "I'm tired, I have construction burnout," Howe said.

But even though the transit center kept Howe busy, but she said she didn't neglect her regular responsibilities. She said it wasn't necessary to reduce operating costs to make ends meet, and operations actually have actually grown from four routes to nine routes, she said, and a million dollar Medicaid transportation program has been added.

Tired or not, Howe says she won't rest on her laurels. She said she plans to focus on operations and improving customer service in the coming year. Is there another big construction project in her future? Howe sighed. "Seaside really wants a transit mall and parking structure," she said.

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