Get On The Bus! Measure 15-141 Needs Your Support
Nationwide, public transit ridership in the United States is steadily climbing. According to the American Public Transportation Association, in 2013, Americans took 10.6 billion trips on transit, a steady one percent increase from the previous year—and, more important, the highest level of public transit ridership since 1956; not coincidentally, the year that President Dwight Eisenhower officially created the federal laws and funding for the expansive interstate highway system.
Over the decades following the mid-50s, Americans took to the roads and cars with abandon, a trend that even warnings about global warming have done little to pump the brakes on—and, with the luxury and prevalence of a culture of single-passenger commuters and convenience, public transportation like bus lines have atrophied. The news three years ago that public transit was gaining popularity was a faint hope and heartbeat that this trend was changing.
Yet, those statistics are misleading in regions like southern Oregon. Primarily, the rise in public transit ridership has been pushed by urban centers like New York and Chicago, but public bus lines in more rural area have largely been overlooked like spinster step-siblings.
Southern Oregon is a precise microcosm of those problems: In the 1960s and through 1975, a private company, Mount Ashland Stage Lines, provided bus service between southern Oregon cities. But, as that company struggled, in 1975, a special election formed the Rogue Valley Transit District (RVTD), which started modestly with three buses, but quickly expanded.
In recent years, though, RVTD has struggled to make budgetary ends meet; like city roads and federal highway on which cars drive, RVTD relies on public funding to maintain its services. A keen example of this funding is a 2012 federal grant to pilot Saturday services. At its peak, 2000 people were riding the buses on Saturday, a large number using the buses to get to jobs. But when the grant ran out in 2015, RVTD was forced to cancel the services, leaving dozens of residents struggling to reach their jobs.
“The general public assumes that the fare passengers pay covers the costs of the route, which is not the case; just like gas taxes do not cover the full costs of the roads drivers use,” explains Tonia Moro, Rogue Valley Transit Now (RVTN) Chair and RVTD Board Member. “The grant which also funded evening service until 9 pm expired in 2015 and RVTD was forced to cut the services,” adds Moro.
Over the past two years, due to inadequate funding, RVTD has been forced to cut those weekend and evening services—the one often most important to working-class residents trying to find an inexpensive way to reach a job—and also reduced the frequency of Route 10, a critical route which links Ashland, Talent, Phoenix and Medford. Now, in an effort to bring back those services, a group of concerned residents is scrambling to restore funding for RVTD. On this May’s ballot, Measure 15-141 is asking for a five-year property levy of 13 cents/$1000 assessed value, a measure which the Messenger endorses.
RVTD has been particular vulnerable: In 2006, RVTD raised single-ride fare to $2, yet, even though that amount is less than a gallon of gas (not to mention the cost of insurance and car repairs), the minor fare increase scared away some ridership—and, moreover, did not generate enough money to sustain bus lines. In turn, the loss of ridership has fueled a downward spiral. According to Moro, RVTD expects ridership to drop 325,000 from the current 1.4 million annually; a loss of about $243,000 in fares. With the reduction of weekend services and Route 10, that trend could continue, if funding isn’t restored.
“While it’s true that more routes means more ridership and more fare revenues, without increased federal funds, RVTD needs additional support from the community to make that happen,” says Moro.
But, currently, there are no opportunities for new federal funds to help RVTD operate its service, explains Moro. Those funds are generally calculated on a formula based on local population numbers and favors urban density.
In 2014, RVTD placed a property levy on the November ballot, in an effort to prevent cuts to bus service, but that measure was soundly defeated, 60 to 40 percent.
“Some homeowners received their property tax statement from the county and their ballot on the same day,” laments Moro. She also points out that many voters did not understand that the levy was simply an attempt to preserve, not expand, existing services. “We heard from community members that they understood the ballot measure to only funds new service and that the existing service would have stayed whole.”
Likewise, this May’s Measure 15-141 is a limited effort to shore up finances for RVTD, and to restore the Saturday services and Route 10.
The timeline is short for proponents to convince voters that a five-year limited property levy is important—important for working class residents to travel to their weekend and evening jobs, and important as an environmental measure to reduce car traffic between Ashland and Medford, and to curb carbon emissions. They have gathered a modest number of “likes” on their Facebook page, but assure those numbers don’t fully represent the interest and support for Measure 15-141. Most notably, the list of endorsers is impressive, including environmental organizations like Oregon Environmental Council and Rogue Valley Earth Day; labor groups Amalgamated Transit Union (Oregon Chapter) and Southern Oregon Central Labor Chapter of the Oregon AFL-CIO; and, governmental bodies like City of Ashland City Council and City of Talent City Council.
And, add to that list the Rogue Valley Messenger.
Vote YES for Measure 15-141.