The Community Urban Bus Service has unveiled a draft plan for enhancing its operations using the extra sales tax revenue voters approved in 2008, but one of the key changes riders want — more frequent bus service — may not be launched until 2015 because of cost.
The plan, which consultants have been working on for a year, proposes a new express service linking Kelso with West Longview, 30-minute wait times on two routes, expanded service hours, an increase in the number of bus stops and the addition of bus shelters at high volume stops. The plan also calls for stricter screening for paratransit bus eligibility. Paratransit service, required by federal law, offers call-ahead, door-to-door service for people who can't ride the fixed-route buses due to a disability.
The community is invited to comment on the draft Transit Enhancement Plan by Dec. 14. The Cowlitz Transit Authority will consider adopting the plan at its Dec. 15 board meeting.
However, if the plan moves ahead as recommended by consultants, riders won't see more frequent bus service for another four years, and then it will involve only two of the six routes. Currently, buses run once an hour.
The snag is that four of CUBS' eight full-sized buses are due for replacement in 2014, making shorter bus waiting times unaffordable until the following year. This was the conclusion of consultants from Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates of Portland, which led a transportation consulting team in preparing the transit plan.
In general, CUBS buses are replaced every 12 years. A diesel bus costs $400,000, and a hybrid diesel/electric bus costs $600,000, said interim transit manager Chris Smith, who works for the city of Longview. (The bus the city most recently ordered was a hybrid, and it's due for delivery late next summer. It's uncertain if CUBS will continue ordering hybrids, Smith said.)
Accomplishing both the bus replacement and the increased service frequency might have been possible sooner if sales tax revenues had come in as high as projected, Smith said.
CUBS initially expected the two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase voters approved in 2008 to rescue the financially troubled bus system would bring in an additional $2 million annually in revenue. CUBS' total sales tax is now three-tenths of 1 percent, or 3 cents on a $10 purchase.
However, due to the recession, sales tax revenues have been 30 to 40 percent below projections since the higher sales tax kicked in on April 1, 2009.
At their Nov. 18 meeting, Cowlitz Transit Authority board members were dismayed to hear that their goal of getting 30-minute service was being delayed so long. Shorter wait times for buses was one of the chief goals the transit authority cited while lobbying voters for the sales tax increase.
"I'm disappointed," said board member Axel Swanson, who also is a Cowlitz County commissioner. "I really thought we'd be able to go at least 30 minutes on all routes. ... But I think there (are) a lot of victories in the plan."
Smith said he was doing a cost-benefit analysis of postponing the fleet replacement to free up the cash needed to begin 30-minute bus service on two routes.