Clatsop County limited paratransit bus service resumes using ODOT grant

Published: May. 8, 2023 at 7:16 PM PDT
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SEASIDE, Ore. (KPTV) – Days after The Sunset Empire Transportation District Board of Commissioners approved a $500,000 state loan, two paratransit buses were back on the road in Clatsop County.

SETD shut down all of its operations on April 29. Interim Executive Director Paul Lewicki said the loan from the Oregon Department of Transportation will slowly help get things moving again.

The money went to operate the two paratransit buses and fund a mechanic.

It’s still unclear when fixed-route bus service will resume, but Lewicki said he’s working to get the Highway 101 route between Cannon Beach and Astoria running on a limited schedule by next Monday. He said there is a lot of work to do but his main goal right now is to prove to ODOT, SETD is using their loan appropriately.

“The loan will cover the expenses and more for May, but June is still a question,” Lewicki said. “Our performance on the money that we received for May will determine whether or not the state will help us with further funding in June.”

Lewicki was appointed by the Board of Commissioners as the interim executive director after his predecessor, Jeff Hazen, resigned abruptly. Hazen came to the board on April 18 with news that the transportation district was all out of money and service needed to be suspended.

The suspension of service came as a surprise for many with ridership up over the last two years, even with the pandemic.  Lewicki said he was shocked to hear that SETD was shutting down after spending five years working on the board of commissioners from 2012 to 2017 and the operations manager from 2017 to 2022.

“I have many years of experience in transportation,” Lewicki said. “Because of my involvement for the last 10 years, I knew it was something that had to be managed until we can find a permanent executive director to take the district forward.”

He said over the next few weeks he will meet with the budget committee to determine a plan to present to ODOT for the next fiscal year. As of now, he still doesn’t know what happened to SETD’s finances.

“I don’t know all the factors yet that led to the situation that we’re in right now with our finances,” Lewicki said. “But we have several audits coming up, one done by the state, which I believe will include a forensic audit, which may give us some insight as to how we experienced the cash flow problems that we did. We have a new biennium coming up, a new fiscal year coming up on July 1st.”

While Lewicki works to get SETD back on the road, community members have been filling in the gaps. FOX 12 spoke to many local Seaside residents Monday who have been impacted or know of someone impacted by this transportation crisis. People have told us stories like employers picking up stranded employees to help them get to work and a rideshare Facebook page was created to help community members connect with those with cars.

Derrick Laws owns Roadrunner Taxi in Seaside. He said his phone was ringing nonstop the first week of bus service suspension.

“It’s been overwhelming for my drivers,” Laws said. “Especially when the cruise ships came into Astoria last week. They all came to Seaside and Cannon Beach. They had to get back to their ships before they left without them.”

Seeing the need for help to move people around the county that need it, Laws has bounced around the idea of buying two smaller buses.

“I threw out the idea of getting a privatized bus system going when I heard the news of the funding and buses not being able to run again,” he said. “It’s not an easy endeavor to get the bus system going.”

Laws said that even though there’s no public transportation for the near future, he said the Seaside and Clatsop County communities will support each other through the crisis.

“I just hope the bus system can use the funds to get up and going and be stable so we don’t have this crisis again,” he said.