Northeast Oregon Public Transit looking to expand service area

Jan. 6—LA GRANDE — Northeast Oregon Public Transit in Union County is preparing to take a big step, one that would save some of its riders in La Grande and Island City countless steps.

NEOPT is planning to significantly increase the scope of the transportation service it offers from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays.

The new system would expand the area buses would travel to in part by allowing bus drivers to deviate from the fixed route, for up to three fourths of a mile, to pick up or deliver passengers.

The proposed plan is receiving an encouraging response from the public.

"People are super excited about it," said Todd McIntosh, the information technology manager for Community Connection of Northeast Oregon, which NEOPT is a part of.

The system could be in place soon.

"We hope to have the new system in place by July at the latest," said Kane Lester, the Northeast Oregon Public Transit transportation program manager for Union, Wallowa, Baker and Grant counties.

Lester said the deviations would be made for riders who had scheduled a pickup or drop-off at least a day in advance. This means in some cases riders will no longer have to walk from their home to a bus pickup site.

"If people call a day in advance we will be at their doorstep the next day," said McIntosh, who is helping develop the proposed new system.

He said the deviations from the fixed route will have an enormous impact.

"They will let us cover the entire populated area of La Grande and Island City," McIntosh said.

Northeast Oregon Public Transit's current fixed route takes riders through La Grande while making stops at Safeway, Max Square, Market Place Fresh Foods, Eastern Oregon University, the Department of Human Services Building, the Union County Public Transit Hub next to the Union County Senior Center, the Riveria Activity Center and other locations. The fixed route also goes into the western edge of Island City where it stops at Walmart. Two buses, each serving a different zone, pick up and deliver passengers along this fixed route six days a week.

The NEOPT expansion plan calls for the fixed route to be extended east into Island City for about half a mile, to D&B Supply at McAlister Road and Island Avenue, and then south for a quarter mile to Island City Elementary School.

The switch to the new system will not be made until a public hearing is conducted and the plan is approved by Connie Guentert, executive director of Community Connection of Northeast Oregon.

No fares are charged for NEOPT riders now and none will be charged if the new system is put in place. Rides on NEOPT buses have been free since July 1, 2019. The transit agency decided to offer free fare after learning it would be receiving additional funding through a new Oregon payroll tax, which takes 0.1% of workers' earnings.

Lester said the move to expand the fixed route and allow for deviations provided by NEOPT is being pursued in large part because of input received from the public.

"It is a move people want us to make," he said.

McIntosh is excited about the project's potential to touch many lives.

"A lot of people here have mobility issues and this will allow us to give more of them rides," he said.

The new system would be funded with money by the State Transportation Improvement Fund, which also funds the current system.

CAT Link

NEOPT's plan also calls for CAT Link, a program run by the agency that provides free rides anywhere in Union County to anyone five days a week, to continue operating at its current level. Lester said more emphasis would be placed on ride sharing, with riders being picked up in south Union County on set days and in north Union County on others.

"This will boost efficiency," Lester said.

CAT Link — short for Connecting All Towns — began operating July 1, 2019.

Dick Mason is a reporter with The Observer. Contact him at 541-624-6016 or