Riders of Northeast Oregon Public Transit buses will soon have one less reason to withdraw cash from their bank’s automatic teller machines.

Northeast Oregon Public Transit has announced it will eliminate all fares beginning July 1. This means every transportation service provided in Union County by NEOPT will be free less than two months from now.

“This is so exciting,” said Angie Peters, Northeast Oregon Public Transit’s Union County manager.

NEOPT will be able to provide free fares because of additional funding from a new Oregon payroll tax. It is set to receive at least $725,000 over a 2-1/2 year period through the tax, which takes .001% of a
person’s earnings.

Almost all of this is additional money people in Union County will have paid under the new payroll tax. The state is required to send payroll tax back to the counties it came from, Peters said.

NEOPT decided to eliminate fares based on input it received during a series of community meetings throughout Union County in 2018 and responses to an online survey. The community meetings and survey were conducted to find out how the public wanted NEOPT to spend the new tax money.

NEOPT will also be using the payroll tax money to expand its services. This will include boosting the number of buses running on its fixed route in La Grande and Island City from one to two and expanding the number of stops.

Presently one bus runs on the fixed route from 7:30 a.m. to
5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays. The bus stops approximately once an hour to pick up and drop off passengers at sites including Fourth Street and Adams Avenue, Safeway, Eastern Oregon University, the Integrated Services Building, the Riveria Activity Center and Walmart.

Beginning July 1, two buses will be running on the route.

“This means buses will be stopping at pickup and drop-off sites
every 30 minutes,” Peters said.

The bus route will also include new stops such as Grande Ronde Hospital, Bi-Mart and Bearco Loop.

Current bus fares are $1 except for military veterans and Eastern Oregon University students, who ride for free.

Peters said the $1 fare charge is deceptively impactful.

“One dollar seems low until you have to pay it every time you go somewhere,” she said.

She noted that many people using public transit actually have to spend $2 since it costs $1 to travel each way.

NEOPT will also be making improvements at its pickup sites with the payroll tax funding. The upgrades will include:

• installing solar-powered lights at all NEOPT stops, which will help people using the stops especially during the late afternoon in the late fall and winter

• adding new shelters at three pickup sites — one will be at Safeway and the sites of the other two are now being determined.

• cutting the curb at the NEOPT’s Rivieria Activity Center pickup site, which will help people with mobility issues.

The payroll tax funding will also be used by NEOPT to allow people to ride for free via its CAT (Connecting All Towns) Link service, which will begin running July 1. CAT Link will provide rides to all communities in Union County. Its drivers will travel directly to and from the homes of people who need transportation in Union County for almost any reason, including going to the grocery store, getting to a medical appointment, visiting a food bank or going to visit a friend.

See complete story in Friday's Observer