Sabrina Thompson, The Observer

Local public transportation will soon receive an upgrade. Union County was awarded $107,757 by the Oregon Transportation Commission from the Statewide Transportation Improvement Fund discretionary program. The money awarded by OTC will go toward capital purchases to fix and enhance the county’s public transit services in collaboration with Community Connection of Northeast Oregon, with whom they contract for public transportation.

One of the first improvements will be the replacement of Northeast Oregon Public Transit’s current ADA paratransit sedan with an ADA accessible Category E van. This mode of transportation is for those who have physical or behavioral issues that make using public transportation difficult. Those who are eligible will have an easier time utilizing the service as the new van fits more people, has a lift for wheelchairs and more room for mobility assistance devices.

Additionally the money will go toward installing security cameras for the 11 vehicles in the public transit fleet that do not have them. There are also plans to install in four of the vehicles GPS units that gives automated stop announcements. This GPS will also let customers track the buses in real time to see when they will arrive at their stop, according to the application the county filed to receive the funding.

“(The STIF grant) enables the county to provide better transit service to our constituents,” the administrative officer for Union County, Shelley Burgess, said. “It will allow us to expand and offer (transportation) at less cost to the consumer.”

In the application, the county requested $119,730 for the improvements. The remaining $11,973 not covered by the STIF funds will come from funds secured through other grants, Burgess said.

The grant application requires that money be spent on improving public transportation for vulnerable communities, including improving passenger experience and safety, or spent on participating in cost-related efforts such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The county identified how it will work toward these goals in its application.

The application stated that with 40% of the county’s population being below the 200% poverty level, any improvements would directly affect this vulnerable community. Installing the security cameras and GPS system was described as “providing customer-facing real-time information so they can effectively trip plan for things ranging from work to interstate travel, and providing safer transportation through on-board real-time diagnostics as well as enhanced safety inside the vehicles from the camera systems.”

The old paratransit vehicle, which can transport only three people, will be replaced by one that can fit up to eight people, taking more cars off the road and providing for more accessibility. The cameras installed in the vehicles will increase customer and driver safety with the ability to review footage to correct and coach on issues when they arise.

Union County is one of 37 communities receiving money from the STIF discretionary program. The overall amount awarded across Oregon is more than $19 million. The money from this program comes from House Bill 2017 and is meant to help expand and improve public transportation in Oregon.

There may be some wait for the new technology as funding and contracts continue to be sorted out. Transportation manager at CCNO, Angie Peters, said she is hopeful all updates will be completed by January.

“It is going to get us up to industry standards for safety and public-facing technology,” Peters said.