The Corvallis Commute

by Alex TwoSpirit

Whether you’ve grown up here or migrated to our humble corner of the US, there is no denying that Oregon is a beautiful state. Nevertheless, while our neck of the woods may have scenic views aplenty, it most certainly does not have jobs aplenty, and many of us spend the greater part of the week travelling to work. The beauty gets lost in a peripheral blur as fingers tighten on the steering wheel; the reality is an economy that forces a commute to where the jobs are located, and Corvallis draws in many from close and afar. With gas prices already hitting the $4.00/gal mark (it hurts to be reminded, I know), it’s hard not to wonder if there isn’t another alternative to this gas-guzzling madness…one that could get you here AND save you money.

Enter public transit. Corvallis already offers a free bus system within city limits. If you’re commuting into town, however, the options begin to dwindle. Let’s assume that your car gets 24 miles to the gallon (averaging highway & city driving), and the going rate is a very affordable $4.00/gal for regular unleaded. If you drive round-trip from the following towns, estimated monthly gas costs for a 5-day workweek are as follows:

Albany: $80, Lebanon: $133, Sweet Home: $220, Brownsville: $173, Salem: $233, Eugene: $313

For some of us, that’s a lot of money. And your employer may not offset those costs with carpooling incentives. So what are the alternatives, and how do people feel about them?

Aside from private carpool, currently the only options for getting to Corvallis are bus or vanpool. Vanpools available at present only run from Eugene/Springfield and cost $120-135 per month depending on route. Adair, Albany, and Philomath all have bus routes that connect to Corvallis, with fares ranging from $0.75-1.50 a day without pass discounts. If you live anywhere else though, you’re just plain out of luck.

In surveying over 30 commuters, who travel various distances, I found their attitudes about public transit encouraging. The overwhelming response was that yes, they are interested, and no, it doesn’t matter what type of transit is offered, so long as the price is right. Buses, vanpools, and light rail all shared similar popularity. People were willing to shoulder the cost through monthly fees or taxation. Many felt that employers needed to pay their share as well, similar to how Corvallis already charges businesses according to size and perceived traffic to fund their transit system. As long as the vehicle would be clean and cost less than their commute currently does, they were all for it.

Realistically, unless we experience an economic and population boom, the light rail option may be unsustainable with the relatively small pool of commuters in the region. At an average of $35 million per mile ($15 million if we’re really lucky), connecting Albany, Corvallis, and Lebanon by rail would cost $1.75 billion. At an average cost of $300,000 per new bus and $30,000 per new van, these two options are far more feasible.

Despite the hunger for change and affordable vehicle options, specific reservations kept being mentioned. Wait times for transit, conflicts between work and transit schedules, the proximity of parking to transit stations, and emergency transportation were all repeated (and quite valid) concerns. Parents especially worried about how to handle their children’s schedules or how to reach them in an emergency. Everyone’s worst fear was that public transit simply wouldn’t be there when they needed it most, and they’d be stranded.

Some of these fears could be alleviated by community effort to find ways to make public transit work for everyone. More buses or vans available during morning and evening commute hours, and employers taking transit schedules into consideration would help with fears of missed rides and tardiness. While not everyone can walk or  bike to the nearest transit station, if public transit were to become a staple, human-powered rickshaws, taxis powered by propane or recycled oil, and perhaps even small electrical vehicles could fill in the transport gap alongside newly planned parking structures. Employers and private companies could offer emergency transport as a benefit or for a reasonable fee, in rental car or taxi fashion. Some already do. Consequently, workers relax during their commute and have more money to funnel into the economy, while employers benefit from positive morale and public image, less pressure for parking, and tax credits. New businesses arise to accommodate commuter needs, and restaurants, bars, and clubs have fewer patrons struggling with safe trips home.

No one claims to have the perfect vision of breaching the distance between work and home. But one thing everyone agreed on was that the financial cost of getting to work is becoming increasingly problematic, and people want alternatives. When we start thinking of the bigger picture and a new standard of what commuting can be, we can harness the American drive for innovation that created the automobile to begin with. Then maybe those fingers could unclench, and we could enjoy the beauty of our state a bit more, while knowing that we are taking strides to preserve it.

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