Philomath Connection bus service will see Saturday runs end until the company operating the system can hire more drivers. At the same time, local riders may be happy to know that the Philomath Connection routes will fill in gaps that currently exist in the schedule. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The public transportation system that serves local residents through Philomath Connection bus routes will be suspending its Saturday runs, the Corvallis Transit System announced. However, the bus service in Philomath also received good news with an expansion of its weekday schedule to fill in gaps that in the past have kept commuters waiting.

“It’s kind of a mixed bag in Philomath — it’s great for the people that have places to be during the week and not so great for the few individuals in town that need the bus service on Saturdays,” Philomath City Manager Chris Workman said. “We’re in a little bit of a unique spot.”

The Corvallis Transit System said that it needs to significantly reduce its bus services due to the contractor’s driver shortage. CTS contracts with Seattle-based MTR Western Inc., for transit services. Beginning the week of Sept. 19, that means no more weekend routes in Corvallis or Philomath.

The city contracts with CTS to operate the Philomath Connection bus, which is free for those who want to ride. The last two Saturdays for service will be Sept. 10 and Sept. 17. The Philomath bus added Saturday service to its schedule in 2018.

“We knew there were some people that needed the service to get to work,” Workman said. “We actually were looking to expand it to Sunday coverage about when the pandemic hit.”

Those thoughts dissipated, however, with COVID-19’s arrival and its negative impacts in many facets of everyday life. Among the challenges for the Corvallis Transit System have been keeping enough drivers on staff.

“They just don’t have enough employees to drive buses,” Workman said. “It’s not a financial issue, it’s an employment issue.”

CTS also is eliminating underperforming routes in Corvallis to use those driver resources on higher ridership routes.

“There are some unknowns about when new drivers are going to come in … they’re actively trying to recruit new bus drivers,” Workman said.

Workman said Philomath was actually able to add stops on its routes because the city “had already budgeted with them through some federal grants and monies that Corvallis received.” Filling out Philomath’s routes with stops every hour has been an ongoing discussion since the beginnings of the city’s relationship with CTS.

“This year was the year that we were finally going to be able to do a full expansion so we’d have full ridership on the hour every hour from 7 in the morning until 6 o’clock at night,” Workman said. “This will be the first time ever that Philomath Connection does not have any gaps throughout the day.”

Those gaps in the schedule have been a source of frustration for some riders and Workman believes the situation has kept many from riding. For example, someone who lives in Philomath rides the bus to Corvallis, works a shift and then may need to wait an hour or two after getting off work for the next bus to come along.

“I think fewer people have relied on taking the bus just because of those gaps,” Workman said. “Now that we’re filling in all of those gaps, the most you’ll ever have to wait is up to just less than an hour and that’s much easier to work your schedule around. They’re much more likely to take the bus if they don’t have to wait over an hour to take the ride.”

In the fall of 2019, the Philomath Connection routes were expanded to better accommodate a growing population, especially with two new apartment complexes and other developments around town bringing in more potential riders.

One of the biggest positives coming out of those changes, Workman noted, was shortening the time that it gets from Philomath to the Corvallis Transit Center. A round trip that used to take 1 hour, 20 minutes, is now down to about 40 minutes.

But those gaps remained in the schedule. Specifically, the Philomath Connection currently leaves the Corvallis Transit Center at 7, 8 and 10 a.m., noon, and 1, 3, 5 and 6 p.m. Missing in the configuration are no routes initiated at 9 and 11 a.m., or 2 and 4 p.m.

“With being able to add these additional services, I think there’s some excitement that we’ll see some bus ridership increase during the week with being able to fill in these gap times,” Workman said.

The Philomath Connection schedule also benefits Corvallis-only riders who can hop on and off at various stops.

“There’s more stops in Corvallis than there are in Philomath for the Philomath Connection,” Workman said. “So we’re definitely a big piece of what Corvallis does … It’s an integral part of the Corvallis Transit System.”

CTS published a press release on the city’s website.

“Suspending these services is a distressing decision and we know it will have a significant impact on our transit user community. Serious and ongoing transit driver shortages have affected most transit agencies nationwide and is unprecedented in CTS history.”

CTS said work is being done with MTR Western to retain existing drivers and attract new ones.

“These efforts included higher wages and bonuses for drivers,” CTS wrote in its release. “Despite these incentives, our contractor was unable to secure the staff resources needed to perform our complete planned fall schedule. We will continue to work towards bringing services back as soon as driver levels stabilize and allow for it.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.