Bus fare collection machines in Union County are becoming obsolete. And advancing technology is not to blame.

The machines are no longer needed on Northeast Oregon Public Transit’s Union County buses because this morning the transit service began providing free rides to all passengers on its fixed routes. Everyone riding on fixed routes in the La Grande and Island City area now travels for free regardless of their, residence or income.

Eddie Cantu, a driver for Northeast Oregon Public Transit, is excited about the change.

“We will be able to put smiles on people’s faces,” Cantu said Saturday.

NEOPT is able to provide fare-free travel because it is set to receive at least $795,000 over a three-year period through a new Oregon transit tax — a statewide payroll tax that employers withhold from employee wages. Beginning July 1, 2018,
Oregon employers were required to withhold 0.1% from each employee’s gross pay to be used for mass transit.

The tax, which also will help fund road maintenance, will total $122,000 locally for 2019-20. NEOPT expects to receive $290,000 the second year and $339,000 the third year. Almost all of this is additional money people in Union County will have been paid under the new payroll tax.

The state is required to send money from the payroll tax back to the counties it came from, said Angie Peters, Union County
NEOPT manager. How best to spend the extra funding is up to the transit districts. NEOPT decided to drop local fares based on input it received during a series of community meetings throughout Union County in 2018 and responses to an online survey.

NEOPT’s bus fare previously was $1 per ride. Peters told The Observer in May that the $1 fare charge was deceptively impactful.

“One dollar seems low until you have to pay it anytime you go somewhere,” she said, noting that even a low fare adds up when you need to pay again for your return ride.

NEOPT will also use the payroll tax money to expand the service it provides. This will include boosting the number of buses running on its fixed routes in La Grande and Island City from one to two and expanding its number of stops, upgrades that also went into effect today.

The new stops on the fixed route include Grande Ronde Hospital, Grande Ronde Hospital Specialty Clinic, Next Step Pregnancy Center, Bearco Loop and Blue Mountain Associates. These stops will join others that have long been on NEOPT’s fixed routes, including the Department of Human Services, Eastern Oregon University, New Town Square, the Public Transit Hub, Safeway, Walmart, JD’s Market, Marketplace Fresh Foods and Riveria Activity Center.

Two buses will now run on NEOPT’s fixed routes from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Service will also be provided from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays, but only one bus will be running.

NEOPT will also be using its additional funding to make improvements at its pickup sites. They will include the installation of solar-powered lights, which should be up by winter, and a new pick-up and drop-off shelter at Safeway.

The payroll tax funding will also be used by NEOPT to allow people to ride for free via its Connecting All Towns Link service, which begins running Tuesday. CAT Link will provide rides to all communities in Union County every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Its drivers will come directly to 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 visiting a friend, Peters said.

Peters said CAT Link, which will be available to everyone, is being started because of input received during community meetings. Senior isolation was one of the issues discussed at these meetings, one she hopes CAT can address.

Peters said on Friday that she is elated that NEOPT is in a position to offer the CAT service and to make upgrades in Union County’s bus service.

“It is a huge blessing,” she said.