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RVTD to ask voters for levy

After striking out in the November 2014 general election, Rogue Valley Transportation District intends this spring to again ask voters to pass a levy that would maintain current bus services, reinstate Saturday service and establish new routes for students.

The measure would levy 13 cents per $1,000 of assessed property within the transportation district for five years — or $26 more a year on a house valued at $200,000. RVTD sought the same amount in 2014.

Last year, RVTD cut its evening and Saturday service and reduced the frequency of its Ashland route, said Julie Brown, the transportation service provider’s general manager.

“Right now people will be waiting, and the bus will pull up, and we can’t accommodate all of them,” she said.

RVTD will have to draw nearly $700,000 from its reserves this year to maintain its current level of service, and an average of $1 million a year if the measure doesn’t pass, said Debbie Wilbur, a certified professional accountant and RVTD’s finance manager.

“At this rate, our reserves will run out in fiscal year 2018,” Brown said. “If this doesn’t pass, then RVTD will have to make significant cuts because we won’t have the reserves to support our current services.”

The reserves are intended for capital projects, such as facility maintenance and new buses. RVTD retired the last of its 1980 GMC fleet last year, and its current 2004 fleet of natural gas buses has almost reached the federal government’s recommended life-expectancy, Brown said.

Fares account for only 20 percent of RVTD’s revenue stream, while local and federal funding make up the rest. The district receives $2.4 million per year from property taxes, Brown said.

“Our fare is one of the highest in the state of Oregon,” she said. “For people who can’t use the bus, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requires that we provide an equivalent service, so we use a van service, Valley Lift, for the elderly and other people who can’t get to the bus stop. It picks them up right at their door.”

“We have to charge them double what we charge the general public,” she said, adding that bus fare is $2 while a van fare is $4. “When you hike up your fares, you have to hike up your ADA costs, and they’re a vulnerable population.”

The Oregon Transit Association and transit agencies statewide are working with legislators to secure matching funding from the state.

“If the state comes through, then what happens is we have the opportunity to continue this level of service after the five years,” Brown said.

In the meantime, the levy also will allow RVTD to better serve Southern Oregon University, Rogue Community College and South Medford High School students.

Of the 1.3 million rides taken last year on RVTD buses, about 80,000 are to local college and high school campuses, Wilbur said.

Increasing the frequency of the Ashland route from every 30 minutes to every 20 minutes and adding back Saturday runs will benefit student commuters and those with jobs in other areas of the transportation district.

A new route, running from downtown Medford to RCC’s Table Rock campus in White City, will give students access to the GED testing center and more classes and career choices, including RCC’s fire science, emergency medical technician, electronic, diesel mechanics and manufacturing programs, said RCC spokesman Grant Walker.

On average, about 1,000 students are studying at that campus. The nearest bus line currently stops about two miles away from the campus, Walker said.

“Certainly, not having public transportation to the Table Rock campus is a barrier for some students,” Walker said.

A second new bus route would provide access to southwest Medford and South Medford High School.

While North Medford High School students are served by Route 60, South Medford High School students lost access to the public transportation system when the high school moved from Oakdale Avenue to Cunningham Way. RVTD won’t replace the school’s transportation service but will give students access to RCC classes, jobs, internships and extracurricular activities without needing a car or having to rely on their parents for transportation, Brown said.

On Wednesday, the Medford School Board voted 4-1 in favor of supporting the new measure and endorsed the statement in the voter’s pamphlet. (Board members Tricia Prendergast and Larry Nicholson were absent.) Some board members even volunteered to pick up part of the $400 filing fee.

“I think it’s important for us as a school district, because I want our students to access programs at RCC,” said school board Chairman Jeff Thomas. “We talk about dual accreditation and students in our district getting college credit, but if we don’t provide the tools for them to access those resources, then it’s just a bunch of talk.”

Board member Janet Lightheart, who voted no to supporting and endorsing the measure, said that while she felt the route would increase opportunities for students, she felt obliged to vote no on behalf of the conservative public.

“I think there may be other ways to fund the transportation service without the levy,” she said.

According to RVTD statistics, Route 10 to Ashland has the most riders. Of the 1.3 million rides last year, 130,000 were to school and 90,000 to medical appointments. Seventy percent of RVTD riders used the bus at least five days a week, and 38 percent of riders said they wouldn’t be able to make their trip without the bus service.

“I embrace this (measure), because I want to see our community grow and be economically viable,” Brown said. “For me, it makes sense, but not every taxpayer will feel that way.”

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.