Sandra Gangle, Mass Transit Committee Chair

In 1871 Salem’s first known transit company was organized. It operated horse-drawn vehicles that conveyed people throughout the city “with safety and dispatch.”

Later, in the fall of 1888, a group of businessmen proposed construction of a streetcar line in order to transport legislators, who would arrive the following January, between the train depot and the new State House and on into downtown Salem. The Salem Street Railway Company was subsequently established and one and one-half miles of track were quickly laid. By 1890 six streetcar routes stretched to the city limits over five miles of track. Two years later the railway was electrified and horses were no longer needed to pull the cars. Several new private companies operated the city-wide system. By 1900 twelve miles of track were in operation.

Unfortunately, the transit system’s revenue from passenger fares failed to meet its operating expenses. Litigation and receiverships brought an end to the expansion of routes and services. Eventually, the streetcar system was abandoned. Street buses were purchased in 1927.

During the 1930s Salem’s buses were operated by a subsidiary of the Greyhound Lines. Oregon Motor Stages of Portland was also involved. As years went by, the demand for bus service grew. Buses were available between 6:15 a.m. and midnight Monday through Saturday with limited Sunday service as well. During World War II even those people who owned automobiles rode the buses because gasoline and tires were restricted.

After the war, car ownership fIourished and fewer people relied on buses for transportation. In 1959 City Transit went bankrupt and its assets were sold to company employees. Then in 1966 a vote of the people led to the absorption of the transit service by the City of Salem. The name “Cherriots” was chosen as the result of a “Name the City Bus” contest. Several small companies continued to operate outside the City limits.

During the 1960s suburbanization moved more people to residential areas outside the city. Growth of public transit was slow. In 1976 the system had 22 buses, carried 3500 riders per weekday and 1200 riders on Saturday. The adult fare was thirty cents.

It became apparent that public transit needed to be a separate entity with its own funding and administration. It had to be able to go to the voters and present its needs without having to compete with other services for which the City of Salem was responsible. The 1979 Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 462, providing for the creation of local transit districts, each of which would have an outer boundary no greater than the city’s Urban Growth Boundary. After several attempts to get public approval, the Salem Area Mass Transit District was formed. Then in 1981 Salem voters passed their first property tax levy for operation of the district’s bus system.

Voters consistently approved budget levies for the bus system until 1994, when a levy failed. Fare increases had to be implemented and the free downtown service was eliminated. Also during the mid-1990s, the Measure 5 property tax limitation began causing financial problems for schools and other public agencies. In spite of those difficulties, however, in May of 1995 the voters passed, by a 57% margin, a $1.5 million levy to continue current bus operations. Then a ten-year financial plan was established with long-term goals regarding growth of the bus system.

Unfortunately, the Measure 47 Property Tax Limitation Cut and Cap, which was passed in 1996, and the amended version, Measure 50, made it impossible to meet many of the goals that were included in the District’s ambitious ten-year plan. In spite of that setback, however, paratransit service for persons with disabilities became effective in 1997, as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was an unfunded mandate that put the entire cost of providing services for populations that could not be served by traditional transit onto the local agency; no state or federal monies were provided.  That impacted the transit district’s 10-year plan. However, the district was able to meet its goals, and cover its ADA obligations as well, with the voter-approved funding for more than ten years. Eventually, however, some anticipated service improvements, such as Sunday service, had to be eliminated. That the service did last that long is a tribute to the professional management of the transit district and the public funding that supports it.

Growth of Cherriots Service Pursuant to Ten-Year Plan

1996 was a high point in the history of the Cherriots transit services. R.G. Andersen-Wyckoff, former Salem mayor, served as the District’s General Manager. There was strong business and community support for transit services. An increase in the property tax base, to $5.9 million, was passed by the voters. The District Board implemented a Ten-Year Plan, which would allow a planned, effective, use of surplus revenues as the District continued to grow.

Under the Ten-Year Plan, corridor improvements and new bus services were added. Night service was implemented, with the last buses leaving downtown at 9:35 p.m. Approximately 2,000 new daily trips were added to the schedule. Twenty-four new employees were hired, increasing the workforce to 148. Bicycle racks were installed on all buses, making the Cherriots one of the first systems in the country to be accessible to commuters with bikes.

In 1997, the District set ridership records in every category: highest night ridership (1,897), highest single-day ridership (15,459); highest Saturday ridership (11,272), highest monthly ridership (349,346) and highest annual ridership (3,857,674). Growth in the third quarter (26.24%) was the highest of any transit district in the United States, as reported by the American Public Transit Association in its Passenger Transport magazine.

In 1998, eight new low-floor buses fueled by clean compressed natural gas were added to the fleet. Since that time, all new buses ordered have been fully accessible to disabled passengers. Also in 1998, the District began operating a park-and-ride shuttle service between the State Motor Pool and Capitol Mall.

In 1999, additional park-and-ride lots and routes were established on South Commercial and Market Streets. West Salem service was improved. The District’s ridership passed the four million mark. Over 4,000 rides per month were provided to persons with disabilities through the CherryLift service. Students in Salem-Keizer’s middle and high schools, as well as patients and workers at major hospitals and State institutions, were served by District buses.

In 2003, the Cherriots reached its all-time ridership record of five million passengers. The District’s routes had expanded to cover the entire area within the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). Curb-to-curb CherryLift service had become available, by appointment, to qualified persons with disabilities who were unable to use the fixed-route service within the UGB. The District had even stretched its routing beyond the UGB by operating Chemeketa Area Regional Transportation Service (CARTS) between Salem and Wilsonville, Woodburn, Silverton, Stayton, Dallas and Grand Ronde.

In 2004, the City of Salem and the Salem-Keizer Transit District conducted a Feasibility Study to consider the implementation of a streetcar system to facilitate short runs between the downtown shopping center and other heavily-trafficked areas, such as Salem Hospital, the Capitol Mall and Willamette University. Several possible routes were suggested for the proposed streetcar system. Due to the high projected cost of the proposal and the difficulty of choosing the initial route for the streetcar track, the proposal was tabled.

Courthouse Square

The dedication service for the $34 million Courthouse Square transit mall took place on September 29, 2000. Unfortunately, the transit mall began to exhibit cracks and signs of structural stress approximately two years later. Then, as the decade wore on, the building’s structural problems increased and the defects became more widespread. The entire Courthouse Square facility was declared hazardous to persons and vehicles and was closed in 2010. The bus transit center returned to on-street locations surrounding the closed facility. Engineers and structural experts are currently working to determine whether the facility can be repaired or must be razed and rebuilt. In either case, the costs of renewal will be in the tens of millions of dollars.

Cherriots Now

Today the District provides fixed-route bus service on 24 routes from Monday through Friday. The fleet is environmentally healthy, as all buses run on compressed natural gas or biodiesel. Also, all buses are wheelchair accessible and all have bike racks.

One-third of the Cherriots’ annual $23.5 million budget is funded by local property taxes. Approximately 11-15 percent of the budget comes from passenger fares and passes, while the remainder comes from a mix of federal, state and local subsidies and grants.  In recent years, however, due to the economy, revenues from the State of Oregon have been severely reduced, causing some services, including Saturday service, to be eliminated.   

The District put transit levies on the ballot in May of 2006, again in November of that year, and most recently in November of 2008, but none was successful.  A majority of those who voted approved the tax levy increase in May 2006, but it failed because at that time state law required a “double majority” (a majority of registered voters turning out to vote and a majority voting in favor of the measure) and the voter turnout was fewer than 50 percent of registered voters.  The double majority requirement was repealed by state voters in 2008.

Additional budgetary constraints have been caused by cutbacks in other financial resources as well. For instance, Willamette University used to provide subsidies for student bus passes, and the State of Oregon used to pay for employee passes; those subsidies have gradually disappeared. Also, the 2011 legislature cut the previous allowance for Salem-Keizer School District student bus passes.

Meanwhile, the demand for bus services in Marion and Polk Counties continues to grow. Many people have been adversely affected by the recent cutbacks in service, especially the loss of Saturday service. The District is working creatively to solve some of the problems that have arisen for those passengers. The District emphasizes customer service and provides training for riders, particularly new riders who need to learn how to use the system effectively. District staff also coordinates carpool and vanpool matching services.

The big question for the future is: How will the District be able to meet the ever-growing demand for its services in the light of diminishing revenues?NOTE: This report was based on research done by Courlette Swenson and Clarence Pugh at the Salem Area Transit District as well as information gathered by Janet Adkins from the District website.

See also, the following video on YouTube: “Understanding the Gas Tax” It is an overview of vehicle fuel taxes in America, and their role in funding our transportation infrastructure. [© 2011 YouTube]

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