By Ann McCreary

Building a new public transportation system from the ground up is a slow process, but the fledgling Okanogan County Transit Authority (OCTA) is moving steadily forward and expects wheels on the ground in July.

“It seems like a snail’s pace sometimes,” said OCTA’s manager, Kelly Scalf. “But we’re moving ahead. We’re doing what needs to be done.”

Scalf said the transit authority will begin providing transportation July 1, when it takes over a busy shuttle route between Omak and Okanogan that is now operated by the private, nonprofit Okanogan County Transportation and Nutrition (OCTN) service. The route carries about 18,000 passengers annually, according to OCTN.

The transportation authority was created a little over a year ago after voters approved a countywide sales tax increase to fund a public bus system. Scalf was hired three months ago to lead the transit authority.

OCTA received its first buses in December, purchased with funding from a federal Department of Transportation grant for rural areas. The buses carry up to 12 passengers and two wheelchairs, and will be used on the Omak-Okanogan shuttle route in July, Scalf said.

The transit authority’s board of directors has been working on the nuts and bolts of building a transportation business, including developing and adopting policies and procedures that will govern hiring employees.

For instance, Scalf said, OCTA will be required to conduct drug testing of employees before hiring them for  “safety sensitive positions” such as drivers. “We have to have all that in place before we can hire someone,” she said.

In collaboration with OCTN, the transit authority has applied to the state Department of Transportation for a grant for signage, bus shelters and dispatch software “so we can dispatch jointly,” Scalf said.

The new transit authority is expected to adopt a new name and logo within the next two months, changing its name to something that is easier for customers to identify and not as likely to be confused with OCTN, Scalf said.

“We’re working with a marketing group out of Spokane that his helping develop a name and logo,” she said.

More buses coming

In preparation for hiring bus drivers who will begin work in July, OCTA will soon be hiring a person to supervise drivers and dispatchers, and to lead the process of hiring drivers, Scalf said.

In addition, OCTA plans to purchase at least two additional buses this spring before beginning its first routes.

All buses will be equipped with data terminals that provide automated notification to waiting passengers, letting them know the anticipated arrival time of their bus.

Scalf said these data terminals are especially useful for “demand-response” transportation services, which provide flexible times and places for passenger pick-up and drop-off in cases where regular bus routes aren’t feasible or where transportation is needed for people with disabilities.

“It will help with efficiency with picking up door-to-door,” Scalf said.

The data terminals also help with fixed-route systems, because riders can access an application called “Where’s My Bus?” that is used by many large city transit systems and provides current locations and arrival times for buses en route, Scalf said.

“It will show graphically on a map or be able to tell you when it will be at your location,” she said.

First though, the new transit authority must determine which routes are needed, and Scalf is working to gather public feedback to help identify where the needs are, and what combination of fixed routes and door-to-door services will best serve county residents.

OCTA is asking county residents to participate in a brief on-line survey that will provide information that the transit authority can use to develop its services. The survey asks where people live and work, and where they go for school, medical and social services.

In the future, for instance, OCTA may be able to provide vanpools to Wenatchee, if the demand is there, Scalf said. “We know anecdotally that people go to Wenatchee for higher level health care,” she said.

The survey can be found on the OCTA website at www.okanogantransit.com or people can call the office to provide comments by phone at (509) 557-6177.

Scalf is also planning to establish a citizen advisory committee to advise “on everything we do — schedules, materials, timetables.” She said she is hoping to structure the group in a way that allows them to do much of their committee work from home via email, rather than having to travel to meetings.

People interested in participating can contact Scalf by email at kscalf@okanogantransit.com or by calling (509) 557-6177 or (509) 710-8324.

Working together

The sales tax levy approved by voters in November 2013 provides about $175,000 per month for the transit operations, although the amount varies based on sales, Scalf said. While the authority is moving toward providing service, some revenues are being placed in equipment and operating reserves, she said.

OCTA is funding a portion of the transportation services provided by OCTN, which is sometimes known as the “senior bus” because it provides transportation to senior centers and provides meals to seniors as part of the services it offers. The majority of funding for OCTN’s services comes from federal and state grants.

When Okanogan County voters approved the sales tax for transit, OCTN lost some state funding for services to seniors that was no longer available due to the creation of a public transportation system. So, OCTA is providing $14,000 per month to help maintain current transportation services, Scalf said.

“If OCTA had not stepped in with funding, transportation service would have been negatively impacted,” she said.

The two transit agencies are working together to strategically apply for state grants to maintain and expand transportation services in the county, Scalf said.

By taking on operation of the busy Omak-Okanogan shuttle, OCTA can support through sales taxes an important service “that would otherwise have competed statewide with other projects” for grant funding, Scalf said.

OCTN now runs bus routes three days a week in the Methow Valley, and has asked to expand to five days a week, Scalf said.

She suspects that there are people in the Methow Valley who would like to use public transportation to commute to work or school in other communities.
“It seems logical those would be the routes we would expand to,” Scalf said.