Fashionably Late: Corvallis’ City Bus System… Fareless Continues, Real Time Tracking On the Way

One rather unique aspect of living in Corvallis is our grand experiment in socialized busing. Fare boxes were banished on Feb. 1, 2011, and everyone rides for free. A downside is pervasive tardiness, with some lines—especially while OSU is in session—regularly running 10, 15, or even 20 minutes late.

Mary Steckel, director of the Corvallis Public Works Department, which oversees the Corvallis Transit System (CTS), isn’t sure who originally came up with the idea of going fareless, but it had been tried in other cities. The big motivator was the CTS had been receiving much of its revenue from local property taxes, which were “tight, and getting tighter, and so we were looking for a more stable, reliable funding source for the transit system.”

busThey came up with the Transit Operations Fee. In exchange for implementing the fee on everyone’s utility bill, “We wanted to give the community something back… to offset the fact that they were going to be paying a monthly fee, and we decided at that point to make it fareless.”

“Our ridership has skyrocketed. We had a 42 percent increase [the first year]. It was phenomenal.” Ridership continues to increase. Increased ridership levels require more and longer stops, which slows down the system. Buses aren’t perpetually late because of the socialized system, they’re late because the socialized system is so popular!

According to Steckel, “It actually was a concern that came up when we talked about going fareless: what do we do when everybody’s riding the bus and we have capacity issues?” They committed to using excess revenue from the operations fee to expand service as much as possible. They’ve added routes from “student population bases… running the bus more frequently to accommodate the needs of those folks. OSU helped support some of those additional runs.”

She acknowledges room for improvement. “We still do have some routes at certain times during the day that they are standing room only, an issue that we’ll have to deal with.”

“If you have a lot of riders, or you have a train, or you have traffic, then it does affect our ability to get through the system. What we’re hoping to do is to get to a place where we can have enough routes on, and design them in such a way that there’s more flexibility.”

To help offset rider frustration, by September they expect to have a Vehicle Information System (VIS) system in place where riders can track buses in real time with smartphones.

Concerning time stats, Tim Bates, Corvallis’ Transit Coordinator, said: “CTS does not have on-time performance data in which to compare on-time performance for the pre-fareless days vs. the post-fareless days… anecdotally it has been kind of a wash when comparing the two. There is certainly more ridership since fareless began in February 2011, but the extra time involved in loading additional passengers has been mitigated by the decrease in time associated with collecting fares from passengers. Also, beginning Sept. 24, 2012, there was an implementation of a 10-minute addition in the schedule after 4 p.m. to help routes get on time before the onset of the afternoon peak runs. This has proved effective in achieving the stated goal.” He says the pending implementation of the VIS equipment “will eventually allow for comprehensive on-time performance data.”

Steckel laments the limitations they face. “It comes down to how much money you have, and how much you can use to make the best possible system. We may already know where there are ways to be more efficient, but we may not have the money to implement them.” The fee that funds the majority of the CTS budget (in addition to federal grants and money from OSU) is tied to the average price of a gallon of gasoline in Oregon over the previous year. If the price of gas happens to go down, the fee will decrease and they will lose revenue—a contingency they prepare for by accumulating a cushion of reserve funds.

 By Seth Aronson