Greasing the wheels

It's no surprise that soaring gas prices are prompting more people to ride the bus. But increased ridership alone won't be enough to take the Rogue Valley Transportation District where it needs to go.

A story in Wednesday's paper detailed the good news for RVTD — ridership is up 16 percent on the route past the north Fred Meyer to the airport and up 12 percent on the Jacksonville-to-Medford run. What's more, a fortuitous bulk purchase of diesel last year and the district's 15 natural gas-powered buses have helped RVTD ride out the fuel cost increases that have squeezed other bus systems' budgets.

But not all the news is good. While ridership is up, too many valley residents can't or won't take the bus because there are simply not enough buses and routes to make it convenient. Even the district's general manager has to have her husband drop her at a bus stop to start her commute, and then hike across a field to reach her office.

The Ashland-to-Medford route, the district's most popular, has seen full buses leave riders waiting for the next bus during Harry and David's peak employment season. And RVTD's fares, at $2 per trip, are the highest in the state.

Solving these issues is not impossible, but it will take a communitywide effort.

The Medford-Ashland area is the only metropolitan area in the state without a mass transit district empowered to levy a payroll tax for bus service. Portland, Salem and Eugene all support their bus systems that way.

The tax would not have to be large: State law limits the maximum rate to 0.07 percent of annual payroll, and RVTD has previously proposed less than half that rate, or about $10 a year for a single employee earning $30,000.

Employers are understandably leery of additional taxes in a faltering economy. But they have an interest in helping their employees get to work as gas prices take a larger and larger share of the wages the employer already pays.

Large employers, such as Harry and David, can help in other ways, too — by adjusting shift times to even out the burden on the bus system.

RVTD currently receives a permanent property tax levy, but that generates only about $1.5 million a year. Property owners are not the best place to turn for stable funding for mass transit.

The district has routinely faced budget shortfalls in recent years, forcing it to cut routes and, two years ago, to double fares. A payroll tax would raise enough to increase service — which is clearly called for with oil at $150 a barrel and no relief in sight.

The RVTD board should work diligently to to convince the public and Rogue Valley employers that it is in their long-term interest to see the bus system grow and improve.

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