West Coast states aim to improve online tools for rural transit riders

A Ride Connection bus drives through Banks on July 11, 2018. Photo: Chas Hundley

ODOT issued a news release saying the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) awarded a $5.3 million ITS4US grant to Oregon, Washington and California.

The $5.3 million the states received is paying to develop software using open-sourced tools to upgrade the outdated technology used by local public transit systems that provide booking and payment, and allow riders to plan their trip.

The grant also includes funding for operations and maintenance to sustain operations for five years after the program is completed, the ITS4US grant website says.

The new software will allow rural public transportation users to use an internet-connected cell phone or computer to book dial-a-ride appointments and to learn paratransit service routes, schedules, and ticket options, including purchasing. Currently, the only option for riders, including the disabled and the elderly, is to book a specialized ride by telephone.

ODOT Public Transportation Manager Marsha Hoskins said currently many of Oregon’s transit riders can’t use an online trip planning tool but that’s going to change.

“With this grant, we’ll make progress toward ensuring trip planning tools are fully available to people no matter where they live, no matter what their circumstance,” Hoskins said. 

Rural transit riders could benefit

In Gales Creek, there are no bus stops, though one can wave at the aptly-dubbed “The Wave” bus from the Tillamook County Transportation District as it passes through to or from Tillamook.

The grant could potentially provide funding to link Ride Connection’s door-to-door services to mapping services. A spokesperson for the nonprofit could not be reached for this story.

Riders from Banks can take the free Ride Connection public bus, known as Westlink, and connect to Forest Grove, or to North Plains, and then on to the Hillsboro Transit Center, which is part of TriMet’s system and also a stop for other regional transit providers. 

Westlink is among a handful of bus routes in Banks, including routes to Vernonia and Tillamook.

Some of those routes currently allows riders to use a website, NW Connector, which is a regional transit system that includes five individual agencies, to plan their route and connect to other regional transit providers and the Hillsboro Transit Center. 

But Westlink’s and other routes are not included in Google Maps, Apple Maps, or another preferred mapping app, making it a chore for many people to plan trips on public transportation using the most common method employed today, which in turn can discourage people from using it. 

The ITS4US grant website says as of March 16 the project concept phase still is underway, and it will be followed by designing and testing, and operating and evaluating the software, which all will take a maximum of 54 months. 

ODOT communications rep Shelley Snow said grant writers from the transportation departments of Oregon, Washington, and California worked together to apply for funding through the California Association for Coordinated Transportation (CALACT), which represents small, rural, and specialized transportation providers in that state. 

Representatives from the FHA and CALACT did not return phone calls as to why CALACT was chosen to administer the funds but it’s likely because it’s managed grant programs for dozens of rural transit agencies throughout California. 

The ODOT press release says partners in the effort included, itself, WSDOT, Caltrans, as well as Google, Portland-based transit consulting firm Trillium Solutions, “and many other for-profits, non-profits, and government organizations.”

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