Valley’s long overdue for expanded bus system
This editorial published on Sunday, May 20, 2012 in the Yakima Herald-Republic
Public transit works best in crowded urban areas where traffic barely moves, parking prices drain your wallet and driving a car is just too much hassle. In those cities, transit proves especially valuable in ferrying large numbers of riders to activity centers such as downtowns, large employers, hospitals and colleges. And for many bus and train riders, taking transit also is a lifestyle choice.
On those counts, Central Washington at first seems to come up short. The area offers small cities separated by wide open spaces; smaller-scale activity center and employers who are more dispersed. For most people, the lifestyle choice is made for them by the ease of private automobile travel — and by the mindset that the car is the only way to go.
And yet, there is a real market for public transit in this area, as borne out by the recent success of the bus service connecting Yakima and Ellensburg. The route, which began in November, connects activity centers like Perry Technical Institute, Yakima Valley Community College and the Yakima Transit Center with Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
The commutes work both ways; many CWU students from Yakima ride the bus, but so do Ellensburg residents commuting to jobs or classes in Yakima. The service in April hit a ridership mark that it wasn’t expecting to reach until June, and peak-hour runs use large 47-passenger buses. Midday routes see 18-passenger coaches.
The service is a partnership between Yakima Transit and HopeSource, a Kittitas County social-service agency. The Ellensburg service marks a continued expansion of Yakima Transit’s reach from the Yakima city limits. That started with Selah, where a pilot project resulted in voter approval of a sales-tax increase in 2006; the transit agency now runs a regular all-day bus route to Selah. A similar approach in Union Gap led to voter approval of a sales tax increase in 2007. Yakima Transit initially provided the service, though Union Gap in 2008 switched to a private carrier, T.C. Transportation, saying it provided a better financial deal.
As of now, the Ellensburg service has a life of two years, with a state grant paying for half of the $528,000 operating cost over that time. Yakima Transit and HopeSource share the remaining cost. Money will need to be found anew once the state grant runs out.
The successes on the bus and at the ballot box reflect a need for the service and a willingness to fund it, even in a conservative area like Central Washington. Meanwhile, large areas of Yakima County go without comprehensive bus service. Yakima Transit would like to expand into Terrace Heights and Naches-Tieton, but it would require a partner in Yakima County, which has been reluctant to fund transit during recent tight economic times.
In addition, the Lower Valley cities of Wapato, Toppenish, Zillah, White Swan, Granger, Sunnyside and Grandview receive only skeleton bus service despite offering their own activity centers; for instance, Toppenish has major employers in AB Foods and Legends Casino, medical facilities and Heritage University. The bus routes operated by the nonprofit People for People and by the Yakama Nation’s Pahto Passage help, but their limited hours and infrequent service go only so far for residents trying to get to jobs or classes.
Yakima County remains the state’s most populous county that has yet to form a Public Benefit Transportation Area, in contrast to neighboring Benton-Franklin, Chelan-Douglas and Grant counties. Supporters tried at the ballot box in the mid-1990s and fell way short. Since then, the incremental approach of pilot projects has developed the ridership market and raised public awareness about the need for the service.
The success of the Ellensburg route and of transit agencies in other parts of Central Washington show it can succeed here. Whatever the approach, the time has long passed for a comprehensive bus system in Yakima County.
* Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.
Permission to publish on the City of Yakima Website granted by Frank Purdy on May 30th, 2012