Getting out the voteIt's 9:24 a.m. and Bend Area Transit (BAT) bus number three buzzes along its route through the city's south side, picking up passengers headed for destinations as diverse as its individual riders, when Annis Henson, seated in the second row, starts speaking out about voter registration and the November election.
Henson grips a clipboard snapped shut on brochures, voter registration forms and a pen. Everyone on the bus swings to attention at the sound of her voice.
"If you haven't registered to vote yet, I can help you do that this morning," Henson says. "If you're 17 years old on or before October 14 and you turn 18 by November 3 you can register to vote in the state of Oregon." She answers a bus rider's question about registering if someone just moved here from out of state. She passes him the clipboard and he begins filling out a voter registration form. At Henson's count that's 70 people she's now registered.
Henson is a member of Citizens for Bend Area Transit (C-BAT), a group of volunteers working to spread the word about a ballot proposal that would create a transit district for Bend and transfer BAT's operating expenses from the city budget to a permanent property tax increase - 39.3 cents per $1,000 of a home's assessed value, or about $48 a year for a home assessed at $287,000.
The vote is essential to BAT's future and whether or not the two-year-old bus system will continue operating at its current level of service. Bend, like other cities, has been hard hit by the recession and housing market collapse, and is in the middle of a budget crisis that already includes three rounds of layoffs and other cuts to the general fund. If Measure 9-60 fails, the city council is likely to slash BAT's $3 million budget, which includes $500,000 in capital costs, by 20 percent at the least, Bend Transit Manager Heather Ornelas says.
"That's the most we can cut to still qualify for (state and federal) matching funds and keep service where it is," Ornelas says. "The council could come back and cut more; they haven't given any direction on what they are going to do."
The city did make some recent moves designed to improve BAT service. It used a $418,000 federal grant to purchase four new buses with 100,000-mile warranties, and it received a $2.8 million state grant, awarded through a competitive process, to buy the Cascade Gas Company building at the corner of Fourth and Hawthorne, The building would essentially become Bend's Grand Central Station, complete with an indoor waiting area, public restrooms and a ticket booth, allowing the 21 transportation service providers, in addition to BAT, that already provide service in and out of town to pick up and drop off passengers in one location.
The new buses already are in service, but the transportation hub is on hold pending the outcome of the ballot measure, and ultimately ending BAT service altogether is another option on the table, Ornelas says. That would leave Dial-A-Ride the only public transportation available to elderly, poor and/or handicapped residents, like Jordan Ohlde, 24, who rides BAT everyday by strapping his wheelchair into the back row of the bus.
"You have to plan far in advance to use Dial-A-Ride," Ohlde says. "Even if you get a ride, they won't always take you back, so doing something simple like getting your hair cut can take all day."
Henson and C-BAT's core group of 15 citizens, which consists of real estate agents, retired people, the wheelchair bound, students and other citizens - even City Recorder Patty Stell attends meetings on her own time - is doing everything it can on an $8,000 budget, raised primarily from private donations, to convince voters Bend's three-year-old transit system is a vital city service.
"We can register people to vote but we can't campaign or talk about the initiative with voters until October 14, which is when ballots are mailed," Henson says. "That's why we're out here riding the bus, trying to register voters as often as we can."
Mike Schmidt, former president and CEO of the Bend Area Chamber of Commerce, is the de facto leader of the volunteer committee. In between hours spent at his day job with a commercial site selection company he organizes grass-roots efforts to get the transit measure approved - staffing the voter registration drive; recording radio commercials; landing speaking engagements, following up with nonprofit endorsement pledges; and trying desperately to raise funds from the business community. So far, the committee received just $500 in contributions from local businesses, with Les Schwab Tires the largest donor at $250. Schmidt says business owners are telling him they don't believe voters will approve the measure, and with the souring economy they would rather keep their cash than contribute to a losing cause. The idea of creating a transit district appeared twice before on local ballots, and on the last go-around the business community kicked in $10,000, Schmidt says. That measure, which was floated to voters in November 2004, failed by a margin of 53 to 41. (Roughly six percent of voters failed to even cast a vote on the question.)
"What the business community doesn't realize is how important the BAT system is to its interests," Schmidt says. "It takes employees to and from work, saving them $60 to $90 a month on gas. More importantly, it brings customers directly to them. Bend is largely a service-sector economy and many people working those $8 to $9-an-hour jobs greatly benefit from public transportation. The problem is, there is a large disconnect between business owners, wealthy residents who don't use public transportation and don't see a reason to support it, and the people who ride the bus every day."
The committee is getting no help from a likely source of support - Bend's Chamber of Commerce won't officially endorse Measure 9-60.
"At this point the Chamber is not taking a stance on the transit district," Communications Coordinator Courtney Linville says. "The Chamber Board of Directors has decided to remain neutral on this topic. The Chamber believes it's important to supply information to our membership so they can make an educated and informed decision, and we have provided information and stories through various outlets, including the (chamber) Business Journal and the Chamber Weekly (newsletter)."
This past week the chamber included a four question survey in its newsletter.
Meanwhile, transit volunteer Henson looks over the rider's voter registration form for errors. The bus stops along Brookswood Boulevard to drop off a woman taking her son to day care and picks up a rider headed for classes at Central Oregon Community College. One man is riding to the library to use the Internet for job searching. His friend tags along to run errands downtown. Dan Bussert, who owns a home-based consulting business, asks the bus driver to turn on BAT's free wireless Internet service so he can squeeze in work on his laptop between meetings with clients.
"I sold my car recently and instead of buying a new one just decided to ride the bus," Bussert says. "I don't know what I would do - what a lot of people who use this service would do - if it disappeared."
According to the city, about 700 residents use BAT for transportation every day. The system carries 6,000 passengers per week, or about 8 percent of everyone who lives in Bend. Almost half of the riders that use BAT and don't otherwise qualify for the city's Dial-A-Ride service, use the BAT system to get to and from work.
"That's a lot of cars taken out of circulation from city streets, and a lot of people whose quality of life is improved by the existence of the BAT system," Schmidt says. "There is no reason to believe ridership would not at least double in the near future if Measure 9-60 passes. Bend is large enough now that it needs an upgraded, up-to-date public transportation system, for future economic development and for the many people who are more and more finding themselves in a financial bind due to the recession and the current cost of living."