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New Tax Dollars Propel Transit Expansion

Chris Lehman

Bus riders will soon have more options in some Oregon cities. It’s thanks to a payroll tax created by state lawmakers two years ago.

One of the beneficiaries of the new revenue is Cherriots, the transit system in Salem. For the past decade, the entire Cherriots system has shut down around 9 p.m. Friday nights, and doesn’t come back to life until the following Monday. Or the following Tuesday, on holiday weekends.

Starting in September, for the first time in a decade, buses in Salem will hit the streets on Saturdays.

Regular riders, such as Jeff Smith, are eagerly awaiting the beefed up bus service. “It will help improve my life," said Smith. "I know it will.”

Smith uses a wheelchair to get around. He lives in a hilly neighborhood in south Salem, and when he can’t use the bus, he said it’s just easier to stay home. “The fact that there’s going to be bus service on Saturdays is going to be fantastic," he said. "I just am sick and tired of being stuck in the house all the time.”

Cherriots general manager Allan Pollock said the upcoming changes will open doors, especially for people who depend on transit to get around town.

“There are so many more opportunities for people to do things now that the bus will get them there, where before we couldn’t,” he said.

And Saturday service isn’t the only way Cherriots is expanding its schedule. Buses will now run two hours later on weekday evenings. Pollock said that’s a significant change, too.

“Someone who wants to go to Chemeketa Community College to get a degree…if they’re relying on transit, and they work during the day, we can get them to school at night, but we can’t get them home," said Pollock. "Now, we’ll be able to.”

Bus riders in Salem saw several rounds of service cuts about ten years ago, when local voters rejected a property tax increase. In 2017, Oregon lawmakers approved a payroll tax to fund transit systems around the state. The tax is one-tenth of one percent of wages, and the proceeds are now being distributed.

In Corvallis, the money will fund bus service on Sundays, said Patrick Rollens, the city’s public information officer. “This is not a one-time grant," he said. "We’re expecting this level of funding to persist into the future, so these changes we’re making to the service are expected to be permanent.”

Buses will also come more often on weekdays in Corvallis, and Rollens said that’s just as significant as adding Sunday service.

“The overall goal is to increase ridership across the system," said Rollens. "And to do that, we know we need to be as useful as possible to our customers.”

Increased ridership is also the goal in Salem, where Cherriots has hired and trained 24 new bus drivers as part of the schedule expansion. Signs advertising the new service are plastered on buses and at the transit mall.

Karyssa Sions-Murphy was waiting for a bus on a Thursday afternoon. She said she’s looking forward to picking up more shifts at her job as a caregiver.

“I can’t work on weekends, because I have to take the bus to and from work, so I’m hoping to start working on weekends now," she said. "And going to visit people when I have the days off, that sort of thing.”

Bus riders in Salem have another round of service expansion to look forward to next year. Starting in May, Cherriots will add Sunday and holiday service. It will be the first time in generations that Oregon’s capitol city will have public transportation seven days a week.

The transit district is celebrating the new Saturday service with a kick-off partyat the downtown Salem bus mall on Saturday, September 7. Bus rides will be free on Saturdays during the month of September.

Chris Lehman has been reporting on Oregon issues since 2006. He joined the KLCC news department in December 2018 and became News Director in March 2023. Chris was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism. His public broadcasting career includes stops in Louisiana and Illinois. Chris has filed for national programs including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”