Bus transit works in Union County. And if you can get Frank Thomas to sit still long enough, he'll tell you about it Thomas, the high-energy manager of Community Connection of Union County, oversees a host of programs, not the least of which is the EOU-La Grande-Island City Shuttle.
The program, up and running since April, is the one Thomas is most proud of these days. He nurtures it like it was a baby. He cheers it on like a proud papa. He believes in it absolutely.
When he talks about it, the words fairly tumble from him.
"People are using us because they know they can count on us," he said during a recent interview. "I see people riding the bus now where a year ago they would have just walked. The demand's always been there, we just didn't have the delivery system."
Thomas has the numbers to prove it. The numbers, ever changing, ever climbing upward, are his passion.
They're loaded into his computer; he brings them up on the screen with sure, swift keystrokes. The screen flickers as he scrolls from one page to the next.
"Last week, we did 8.3 rides an hour, and that's not bad for a small system," he said, turning to his computer during a recent interview. "There's some really cool stuff going on. People who weren't being served are being served now."
Community Connection's transportation system is an evolving thing, with the shuttle the latest addition.
Thomas said the agency has long had a mandate to provide transportation for the elderly, disabled and low-income residents.
Over the years, the mandate has expanded to include the general public.
"We've been in transportation since the 1970s, though we never thought of it as public transportation," Thomas said. "It started as a thing where someone would call needing a ride to the post office or wherever. Later we got vans, and the vans needed wheel chair lifts. We evolved as the market became available."
With more funding came more requirements, including one that Community Connection begin to serve workers needing rides to their jobs.
Dial-A-Ride, a service where people could call for door-to-door, curb-to-curb transportation, was born.
Demands on that system grew. It remains in operation today, still available for the elderly and people living with mobility challenges.
A rising number of people using Dial-A-Ride pointed out the need for more service.
"The genie came out of the bottle in 1999," Thomas said. "We ended up serving two classes of people, younger people with job access and our traditional riders wanting to go to the senior center, doctor appointments, or shopping."
With demand increasing, the idea for a regular shuttle service began to take shape. Funding came through for a study.
"We looked at ways of fixing the system and making it better. We did 18 months of market study and research. Clearly, it's worked," Thomas said.
Thomas and officials from
La Grande, Island City and Eastern Oregon University designed a transit system that would course through nearly every neighborhood between Wal-Mart in Island City and Eastern Oregon University in La Grande.
They worked in stops at major shopping centers, supermarkets, government buildings, and in La Grande's downtown shopping district.
As the idea developed, Thomas and the others understood that Eastern, with its large student body, would be an important customer.
A young man named John Galliano was serving at the time as student body president. Thomas said Galliano was a key in efforts to coordinate with the school.
"He was a huge help in getting it started. Without his input, this system would have had trouble getting its traction," Thomas said.
Predictions that Eastern students would be a shuttle mainstay turned out to be accurate. An arrangement was worked out so that a small portion of student fees, $1.50 per student per term, is paid to the shuttle service. In return, students get unlimited rides.
"Students have really supported the shuttle," said Thomas.
Wal-Mart, the bus follows a route along Island Avenue to Albany Street, swings down Albany to Cove Avenue, follows Cove back to Island.
It crosses Island Avenue on to Monroe, follows Monroe to Fir, Fir to Y, Y to Fourth and Fourth to Division.
Past Benton Park, it turns on to Second Street, heads over the viaduct. Downtown it makes a stop at Max Square, then follows Adams to Safeway in the east end.
On another leg, it follows 16th Street to H, H to 12th, 12th to Gekeler, Gekeler to C, C to Sixth and Sixth to the university. The bus runs hourly, Monday through Friday, and operates late on Friday and Saturday nights.
There are stops at regular intervals, and, except along congested Island Avenue, those wanting to board can flag the shuttle down. Those riding can get off anywhere they want to.
Some stops along the way yield more riders than others. The two stops at Eastern are key, as are the ones at Safeway, Albertsons, and Wal-Mart.
But Thomas, always tracking the numbers, is excited that ridership in the downtown area seems to be increasing.
He said that in the beginning, predictions were that one passenger would get on the bus downtown for every 20 at Wal-Mart.
These days, counting the regular stop at Max Square and the regular stop at Safeway, it is picking up one for every 2.06.
"I wouldn't want you to write this in a way that pictures me as anti-big box, because I'm not," Thomas said.
"But it's 1,000 percent closer to parity than anybody would have guessed. Maybe people aren't actually going downtown to shop, but they're getting a look at what the area has to offer. For the holidays, I think we'll be slammed with passengers. I think we'll end up with a ton."
As the shuttle's success continues, Thomas constantly worries that credit should be given where it's due.
He doesn't like being touted as the man responsible for it all. He talks of his staff, including drivers Jerry Fryling, Lynn Halliday, Nancy Kratochvil, Jim Kunkel, Gail Turnbow, Bob Watson, Ron Witcraft and Patty Ekstrom, in glowing terms.
"We have not missed a single day. They really make it happen. I've had weeks where I was missing people, where people called in sick, but every ride got served," Thomas said.
Thomas acknowledged there is always room for improvement, and he is ever on the lookout for ways to better serve his customers.
One failing of the system, he thinks, is that it doesn't get into the neighborhood around Pioneer Park and Veterans Memorial Pool.
He dreams of more, of bigger, of better. He dreams about buying a trolley and running it in such underserved areas.
He also dreams of extending shuttle service to neighboring counties, bringing workers in for local manufacturers, helping to fill demand for labor.
But for now, he keeps looking at the numbers, and liking what he sees.
He said that for the next couple of years, his budget, coming from a variety of state and local sources, seems secure.
And the numbers tell him that since the inaugural run April 18, over 10,000 people have ridden the shuttle, and that more than 600 people a week are getting on these days.
"If you had told me when we started that we'd be doing this well, I would not have believed you," he said.