ODOT steps in with loan to save Clatsop County’s public transportation

After the suspension of public transportation in Clatsop County, a loan from the Oregon Department of Transportation gets services running again.
Published: May. 3, 2023 at 8:26 PM PDT
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ASTORIA, Ore. (KPTV) — Within a week of the suspension of public transportation in Clatsop County, the Sunset Empire Transportation District’s (SETD) Board of Commissioners approved a $500,000 loan from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to get partial services running again.

The loan offer came days after bus riders in Clatsop County learned the board voted to suspend service indefinitely after it came to light the transportation district was in a serious financial crisis. The money will allow SETD paratransit services to resume on May 8th. However, the money will not cover fixed bus routes. The timeline is still uncertain when full operations will resume, but Interim Executive Director Paul Lewicki told the board the soonest could be in three months.

“It will be a slow process but our goal is to get back to where we were,” Lewicki said.

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Lewicki was appointed as the interim executive director after the previous one, Jeff Hazen, abruptly resigned Tuesday night. He was in charge of SETD finances and operations when it came to light that the transportation district was running out of money. He alerted the board on April 18th about the financial crisis and recommended suspending services. Nearly 10 days later, the money was gone. The board had no choice but to suspend service and furlough nearly four dozen employees. Commissioner Charles Withers said the board had no idea SETD was in, what he calls, a “significant” deficit until Hazen brought it to their attention.

“We defer to the executive director, he runs the operation,” Withers said. “We have no operational responsibilities, we simply hire the executive director and let him do his job.”

ODOT said SEDT’s annual budget is around $6.4 million but it’s unclear how they ran out of money with two months left in the fiscal year. Karyn Criswell, ODOT’s Public Transpiration Administrator, told FOX 12 that preliminary findings of financial records show the money SETD spent is not adding up. She said bank statements do not match what was being reported to ODOT or the board of commissioners. To comply with the loan, the state will open up an audit to investigate what happened to thousands of dollars to taxpayer money.

“We’re not sure what exactly happened and when it started to happen so were with you,” Commissioner Diana Nino told the packed board room. “Were with all of you. We’re trying to find answers.”

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Gov. Tina Kotek also weighed in on the public transportation crisis in Clatsop County in a statement to FOX 12:

“Public transportation allows Oregonians to go to the doctor, shop for groceries and visit family members. The state could not stand by while Clatsop County residents lost access to this essential service. We need accountability and action. My office is following up to get answers on how the district’s devastating financial situation occurred while taking clear action to make sure Oregonians have access to the service they need.”

Karen Crichton lives in Seaside and has been an advocate to get buses running again in the county. She said $500,000 is not enough. But while SETD’s finances are being sorted out, she said riders are left stranded.

“The population is growing and aging and the costs are going up,” Crichton said. “$500,000? What that is a month, month and a half of an operating budget and we’re back to where we are right now.”