John Dreeszen became the interim director of the Columbia County Transit Department at an interesting time: March, 2020.
The former director of the department, Todd Wood, left the position last year to take a job closer to home. Wood’s departure had been expected and the transition came nine months into a two-year budget cycle.
“The expectation was this should be pretty straightforward,” Dreeszen said. “At the time we didn’t anticipate any big money challenges, which have been our primary challenges, and then COVID hit. It definitely changed our world, as with everyone, but that’s been an interesting part of it.”
The pandemic lowered ridership dramatically during the early months as people were instructed to stay home as much as possible, Dreeszen said. The department oversees the CC Rider which connects residents around Columbia County and around the region.
“Ridership began fairly immediately to drop significantly— as it should have, really, under the stay at home orders and those things— we expected that part,” he said. What was less expected were the federal aid packages that turned out to help stabilize finances within the department, despite decreased ridership and broken transit contracts with local colleges.
When it comes to finances, Dreeszen is the right man for the job. Before moving to the transit department, he had been in charge of payroll for the county and comes from a background in accounting. He was moved to the transit department due its heavy reliance on grants.
“We don’t have a tax base for our transit department and very little from the general fund comes in,” he said. “It’s as much a grant-management job as anything else.”
Approximately 80% of the department’s roughly $2.4 million operating budget is supported through federal grants distributed at the state level. Dreeszen said the department has historically operated at a deficit, and was typically borrowing money from the general fund to balance its budget each fiscal year, then repaying the funds to the general fund and at a deficit again.
“The department definitely got caught up in a little bit of a vicious cycle there,” he said.
Enter the CARES Act.
Despite losing a contract with Portland Community College when its campuses shut down, and low overall ridership, the department was able to close the fiscal year in June without borrowing any money from the general fund
“I’m really happy to say this fiscal year ending in June, we did not borrow any money from the general fund and we were able to pay off the last loan we took from the general fund last fiscal year,” Dreeszen said.
The CARES Act funding has allowed the department to balance its finances and continue to provide what Dreeszen identified as its most important services: the bus line to Portland and the Dial-A-Ride service.
The high number of Columbia County residents who rely on the bus service to get to work in Portland has started to pick up again, he said. And demand for Dial-A-Ride has remained consistent.
“We’ve lost revenue during COVID, and that’s continuing,” he said. “That CARES Act money has helped sure us up through this year.”
While the money helped the department get on balance, Dreeszen said he doesn’t expect to see more federal pandemic funds flow his way.
“I think, off the top of my head, I would expect us to need to do some belt tightening going into the next fiscal year for sure,” he said.
In April, ridership was estimated to be at 50% of what it had been pre-pandemic, and Dreeszen said the levels have changed throughout the course of the year. The department is in the process of evaluating the different services it offers and changes or might be made. The Portland commuter bus and the Dial-A-Ride service will be maintained, he said, as they have constant demand and need in the community.
In September and October, when another wave of high COVID-19 cases hit the area, the Portland commuter service dropped about 80%, he said.
“When we began layering on the CDC guidance for transportation that requires social distancing on the buses themselves, we had to eliminate really about half the seats in the bus,” he said. “In some ways we might have been fortunate demand didn’t stay where it was, we might have been doubling buses.”
Demand has started to slowly inch back up for the commuter bus, he said.
“I don’t know if it will be 10 runs a day like it is now, but it will definitely be enough to meet demand— which has also gone down with so many folks working from home,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see if that reverses itself or to what extent that reverses itself as we work our way out of the pandemic.”
Dial-A-Ride demand went down slightly through the pandemic, but Dreeszen said it picked up quickly. The curb-to-curb service is available for anyone to use, but the department prioritizes older adults or people with disabilities who use the service to make it to medical appointments, grocery shop, bank or anything they need a ride to do.
The service picks people up from their homes and takes them directly to their destinations.
“A lot of these folks, especially in our rural area, they don’t have another source of transportation. We’re really it,” Dreeszen said. “So those two areas we know we’re going to hang onto. The other areas we’re definitely taking a close look at.”