The following is a summary of an interview with Allan Pollock, General Manager of Salem-Keizer Transit, (pictured at right) that was conducted by Janet Adkins and Sandra Gangle on October 27, 2011.
LWV: What are the major factors that affect public acceptance and use of public transit in this community?
Allan Pollock: There are misperceptions and ungrounded fears, especially by people who don’t ride the bus. Some perceive public transit as only for those with special needs, elderly, and youth who don’t drive. Others think buses are unsafe. Actually, public transit is one of the safest modes of transportation.
Some people expect that a bus won’t go where and when they want to travel. Unfortunately, people who believe buses can’t serve their needs tend to be reluctant to support the costs of additional routes and greater frequency of service that would address their needs.
LWV: What are your budgetary concerns for the continuation of current Cherriots services (including CARTS and CherryLifts) over the next two-to-five years?
Pollock: Local funding from property tax revenue presents a conundrum. Property market values are falling, but tax revenues are increasing because assessments have not kept up with market values due to the three-percent-limitations of Measure 5. If other ballot measures come up and are approved, we could face compression due to property tax limitation. We do expect to see property tax revenue flatten or perhaps reduce in the out years.
More important is the unknown about federal funding and reauthorization of the multi-year federal highway and transit bills. These will have more effect on CARTS, which is funded by federal Rural Transportation funds and some Elderly and Disabled Transit funds, with a local match ($1 million) from Special Transportation Funds (STF).
We have also lost state funding from BETC (state Business Energy Tax Credit). Current state sources include two cents of the current cigarette tax (a declining fund), “lawnmower fund” + estimated portion of the gas tax used in lawnmowers and tractors (non-highway uses), and a portion of the DMV ID card fee that non-drivers can get.
Our only lottery funding comes through Connect Oregon funding for capital projects. Connect Oregon I, II, and III were each $100 million statewide (competitive grant program). Connect Oregon IV from last session is just $40 million. Salem-Keizer Transit did receive grants from Connect II (Keizer Station) and Connect III (Rickreall Park and Ride at Polk Co. Fairgrounds).
The state does pay local transit districts in the form of “in lieu of payroll tax” payments based on the number of state employees within the district (even though Salem’s local revenue is property tax, not payroll tax based). Salem receives more than Lane Transit District or Tri-Met because we have more state employees. This is an important and reliable source of revenue for the district.
The Governor’s Office is convening a work group, the Non-Roadway Transportation Infrastructure Work Group, and I will be on it; its first meeting is next month. The point I will make to the work group is that the state needs to provide a dedicated funding source for operations.
Meanwhile, we expect to be able to maintain current services. If cuts become necessary, route frequency would be the first area to look at reducing, but no routes would be eliminated unless necessary. There would be a public process as part of any service reduction.
Sixty percent of rides are work related. The biggest factor in ridership increase is gas prices. When gas went above $4 per gallon in 2008 we had a nice rise in ridership.
Growth in ridership won’t affect capital costs but will affect operating costs. We can add “trippers” pretty easily and quickly to handle increased demand if the financial resources are there. Adding a new driver requires a 6-week training period.
By law CherryLift service cannot be cut.
LWV: What are your concerns about the recent news that WHEELS is terminating its transport service? How will such action affect the Cherriots?
Pollock: October 31 was WHEELS’ last day. This program was run by Oregon Housing and Associated Services for seniors and people with disabilities, providing work transportation for 140 clients. We can cover a portion of their clients (about 105) who are not severely disabled (we do not provide door-to-door service) and who reside within the UGB.
LWV: What other local funding sources have been considered in Salem-Keizer and what are the pros and cons of these options?
Pollock: Payroll tax, which businesses pay. The payroll tax is Lane Transit District and Tri-Met’s major local revenue source. Payroll tax is volatile, and the changing economy has affected their revenue stream. People compare us to Eugene and the services they have + comparable sized communities + but they have 2 ½ times more locally generated revenue. We get $9 million in property tax and they get over $20 million in payroll tax. When our district was formed, we were put in a separate subsection of the ORS, so a vote of the people would be required to institute a payroll tax here; it was voted on in the 1990s and was defeated. Another difference: Lane Transit District and Tri-Met have appointed board members and ours are directly elected.
The Salem Area Chamber of Commerce is supportive of Cherriots but does not support a payroll tax. If we did go for a payroll tax we should never give up the property tax. If it came to that, I would recommend that the payroll tax supplement the property tax, thereby minimizing the impact to businesses, who also pay property tax.
We have not pursued Systems Development Charges. They would not be a significant source of revenue and could not be used for operations.
Lots of transit districts in the U.S. use sales taxes as part of their revenue; that is not an option here, as Oregonians do not support sales taxes.
Other states’ transit districts get a portion of their states’ gas tax. Oregon’s constitution limits use of the gas tax to roads; we need a constitutional amendment. One penny of the gas tax could have a significant positive impact for Oregon’s transit districts; we could probably add Saturday and maybe even Sunday service.
The local Transit Occupancy Tax is for promoting tourism. There is not much money there, and we don’t get any. However, a portion could be used to purchase a downtown circulator trolley.
The last property tax vote was in 2008. Keizer Chamber supported it. Salem Chamber was neutral. At that time we were seeking more money to provide the same service + a hard sell with the public. When the ballot measure was defeated, we had to cut Saturday service.
LWV: What do you think will be the impact of the Courthouse Square repair/ reconstruction project on financing of the Cherriots system?
Pollock: The biggest impact is public sentiment + some want us to fix it and others don’t. The transit mall portion is our responsibility. Estimated cost is $5 + 10 million. If the Transit District can’t get federal money, we can’t fix it. Our only available money is our ending fund balance and we put $1 million aside at the end of the last fiscal year. We would have to cut services to pay to repair or rebuild out of current budget. We can’t borrow money; by law we have to pay back loans within a year or go out to a vote of the people to pursue a bond. We paid cash (mostly federal money) for our share of the transit mall and do not owe anything on the current transit structure. Marion County still owes $10 + 15 million, however, on the building.
I believe Federal authorities understand that we were not at fault, We depended on experts and the people who design and inspect construction projects. We have kept feds informed throughout. I don’t believe we are the only transit district in the country that has ever had construction problems.
LWV: Do you expect the demand for Cherriots services to grow? If so, why?
Pollock: Sixty percent (60%) of rides on Cherriots buses are work-related. One of the biggest factors in increasing or decreasing ridership is the price of gasoline. When gas went above $4 per gallon in 2008, we had a nice rise in ridership.
Last year we lost the BETC (Oregon Business Energy Tax Credit) funds that had been paying for student bus passes. This year we are seeing a drop in the number of students using Cherriots after school. We are not likely to get those funds back. We probably won’t get the State employees’ bus passes back either.
LWV: Does the District keep track of private, school, or government programs that give bus vouchers for clients or patrons?
Pollock: Cherriots staff was at all school registrations this fall to talk to parents and kids and sell passes. Students are eligible for discounted monthly passes. We didn’t sell a lot, but we gave out information and will monitor over the first few months of school. The School District does buy some passes for students in non-traditional programs, such as early college, also for students with disabilities.
The State does buy some passes for needy clients. Some State agencies buy in bulk and sell them pre-tax to employees. We are not aware of any businesses that pay fully for bus passes. Some allow employees to buy passes with pre-tax dollars.
LWV: How will growth affect the need for additional capital expenditures and/or additional operations costs?
Pollock: Growth in ridership won’t affect our capital costs, but it will affect operating costs. We can add “trippers” (additional runs to supplement service on a particular route) pretty easily and quickly to handle an increased demand. Seventy-five percent (75%) of our operating expense is labor. Adding a new driver requires a six-week training period.
LWV: What efficiency factors are commonly used to compare transit systems and how does our transit system rate?
Pollock: We submit statistics to a national database (a summary of its comparisons is reported in Cherriots’ annual budget document). We compare favorably over all + we might look better in one area and less so in another. One measure that is useful is number of passengers carried per hour of service. That varies from 15 to 50 passengers per hour. Typically the corridor routes (15 minutes between buses) range between 40 to 50 passengers per hour and neighborhood circulators in the 15 to 20 passengers per hour of service. We can also keep statistics on our ridership numbers by route.
LWV: Do you have any opinion about the feasibility of implementing a streetcar system? What would you foresee as the advantages and disadvantages of such a service?
Pollock: If you mean streetcars with steel wheels and on tracks, I question whether we are big enough. I’m not sure it makes sense for Salem right now. Streetcars could be justified as an economic development engine. Even if we could get the federal government to pay for them to be installed, we would have to provide the operating revenue; that would be an issue. Would we need a separate tax just for streetcars?
In response to a follow-up question regarding a possible river crossing alignment for streetcars above the pedestrian bridge: I would think an alignment across the existing Marion Street Bridge would make more sense than going above the pedestrian bridge. It could connect with a route along Edgewater.
LWV: Do you have thoughts about service using a trolley?
Pollock: A trolley is really a bus-type vehicle. The issue with a trolley is that we would be adding stops downtown and that’s difficult to do. We don’t have many downtown stops now. The buses mostly run between downtown and outside locations, not in a circular pattern around downtown.
The Transit Occupancy Tax, which is a local tax, is for promoting tourism. There’s not much money there and the Transit District doesn’t get any of it now. But maybe some of that could go for a trolley.
LWV: What is the process for getting public input and working with the city regarding dangerous traffic/pedestrian conditions at bus stops? (The League’s “Let’s Ride the Cherriots” participants noted a problem at the Del Webb transfer stop, on the way to Kroc Center; passengers had to cross the street mid-block in order to change buses and there were no sidewalks on either side of the street. A person with impaired vision was especially uncomfortable crossing the street under those conditions).
Pollock: We have discussed the Del Webb stop. It is an unusual location. We place stops at the far side of intersections so that people can get to their transfer stop more easily. We also want the bus stop to be located where people want to get off. Sometimes, it’s difficult to meet all the competing needs.
Some older stops are unsafe for wheelchair access because there is no sidewalk. We could pay for a new bus stop, but if other improvements are needed (such as constructing the sidewalk), those are up to the City. Any new stops or improvements to stops have to meet ADA accessibility standards.
LWV: How is CARTS (Chemeketa Area Regional Transportation System) funded; what authority does the S-K Transit Board have regarding CARTS; and is there a citizen’s advisory committee of any kind involved with CARTS?T
Pollock: CARTS is funded by Federal Rural Transportation 5310 Funds. Some federal funding comes for Elderly and Disabled Transit. A local match can come from Special Transportation Funds (STF). We contract for the CARTS service. It costs $1 million a year.
The Cherriots Board (Salem-Keizer Transit Board) has responsibility for CARTS policy. An STF Advisory Committee advises the Cherriots Board on the distribution of special transportation fund revenues. We also have two other committees, one in Marion County and one in Polk County, that advise/work with staff on operational-type issues. These committees are designed to represent the communities on service plans, routes, schedules, etc.
The ADA applies differently to CARTS, which is a service that is mainly for commuters. CARTS flexes its routes to pick someone up upon request.
Outlying communities that are served by CARTS are not paying anything for CARTS through their property taxes. That would help. Some of the routes are circular within specific communities. It seems as if there could be some support from property taxes in those communities.
LWV: How is Cherriots staff or your Board involved in regional and local land use planning and decisions? At what point is Transit District input sought or given regarding the effect of a development proposal on the transit system? In your opinion, how well does this work, and do you have suggestions for improving your role or the process?
Pollock: Transit planners work with City transportation planners. At the time of requests for building permits they get input from us. The permit application then becomes a Planning Commission issue and transit issues may or may not get addressed appropriately by the developer.
Kroc Center is good example of how we can help work out the stop configuration during development by collaborating with planners. It’s not often the case that we get such opportunity. We do work with local jurisdictions. Some developers talk to us. We also work with other city staff and bike and pedestrian people. We can pay for a bus stop, but the rest is up to the city + sidewalks, crosswalks, other configurations. The School District has not involved us in conversations about their planning.
LWV: What are your thoughts on the recommendations in the River Crossing Alternate Modes Study?
Pollock: There are some good ideas there. I will look them over again and get back to you. Most of them need the support of other jurisdictions or additional funding.
LWV: Are there any other questions we should have asked you?
Pollock: Questions we ask ourselves, such as:
- How do we show the benefits of transit to non-riders, non-users of the system?
- Who is our customer? Riders, taxpayers, businesses, agencies?
- How do we determine what people want? For instance, we may think Wi-Fi on the buses is a good idea, when people really want cleaner buses or something different. Good surveys or other rider feedback is important to help us make good decisions about new services.