City News

Shorter bus rides for Salem residents, less pollution among transit plans for infrastructure dollars

Riders board through the rear of Cherriots bus at the downtown Salem transit center(Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

It’s a 10 minute drive from Salem’s South Gateway neighborhood to the sprawling Amazon fulfillment center off Highway 22 that employs hundreds of local residents.

But the same trip on a Cherriots bus takes over an hour, requiring riders to travel from south Salem to the downtown transit center and transfer buses twice before heading back south along Lancaster Drive.

Improving that service for south Salem residents has long been a goal for the Salem Area Mass Transit District, better known as Cherriots. Now, with the passage last week of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill, they’re a step closer.

Cherriots will see an influx of new money: a total of $32.8 million over five years. That’s $8.3 million more than the agency would have normally received from the federal government, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The agency planned to spend about $75 million for the 2021-22 fiscal year, so the funds represent a substantial increase.

“We were thrilled because this now gives us some certainty of funds coming to our district,” said Allan Pollock, Cherriots’ general manager.

Pollock and Cherriots Board Chair Ian Davidson said building a long-delayed south Salem transit center is high on their wishlist as they contemplate spending additional funds, though decisions have yet to be made by the agency’s board. 

Plans to build a transit center in south Salem stalled in 2019 after negotiations failed to produce a deal to build in a Walmart parking lot and the district ran out the clock on state money.

The center would allow the agency to offer more routes serving south Salem directly, like a link service connecting directly to the Amazon center.

Pollack said Cherriots leaders have been gathering community input on possible sites following the 2019 stall. He hopes to present possible options publicly in the spring and said the center could be operational in about three years, though there’s substantial uncertainty without a site chosen or acquired.

“The timeline has sped up a little bit because of the transportation bill,” Pollack said of the south Salem center.

Davidson said the extra money also gives Cherriots a path forward toward achieving its emissions goals, reducing the amount of pollution Salem residents breathe in along bus routes, and lowering the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The board has set a goal of having a zero emissions bus fleet by 2040 and received a $6.3 million federal grant earlier this year to purchase its first electric buses. But funding for a full fleet transition remained out of reach.

“The big unknown was: if this is our plan, how do we execute on it?” Davidson said.

The new federal dollars provide a possible funding source.

Other possible items include an eventual east Salem transit center, repairs or upgrades to the existing bus fleet. The agency’s leaders recently began a strategic planning process to set longer-term goals for how the agency can better get Salem residents where they need to go, and Davidson said the federal money will help with whatever goals they set.

“Now is a good time to consider what Cherriots will be, the Cherriots of the future,” he said. “It’s going to be a community involved.”

Though the bill’s spending on traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges dwarfs what’s allocated to public transit, Davidson said there’s excitement among transit advocates about the possibilities ahead.

He and Pollack are in Orlando this week attending a conference of the American Public Transit Association. Davidson said the energy at the conference has been at odds with the pedestrian setting in a hotel ballroom, with standing ovations at times breaking out as speakers discuss the impacts of the infrastructure bill.

“People are very excited by this generational investment in public transit. Public transit for far too long has been underinvested in,” he said. “The mood here is generally pretty jubilant.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.