C-Tran says changes positive, more work to do

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer

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Chris Forhan uses C-Tran nearly every day and has been a constant rider for a little more than 10 years, so he had a keen interest when the agency made a substantial service change last year and added The Vine in January.

C-Tran altered 375 bus stops, changed 11 routes, added three more and dropped two others in September in an effort to improve overall functionality of its system. The changes helped lay the foundation for The Vine, the region’s first bus rapid transit system, which went live a few months later.

So, how’d the agency do?

By Forhan’s measure and those of a handful of other riders, pretty well.

“I think C-Tran’s made a lot of really good improvements over the last year,” Forhan said. “We’re reaching a level with public transit that’s comparable with other cities.”

By its own standards, C-Tran saw some positive results, but there’s still work to be done — especially on its commuter routes — according to a report provided to the agency’s board of directors on June 13.

In October and November 2015, the 11 routes C-Tran selected ran on schedule about 67 percent of the time. A year later, after they had changed, their performance jumped up to 76 percent.

Looking at March and April from 2015 to 2016, ridership increased by about 1 percent on those routes. Those that weren’t changed lost ridership by about 7.3 percent during the same period.

Throughout the system, C-Tran’s overall ridership declined by 4 percent in 2016, the fifth straight year it dropped. Still, the loss wasn’t as bad as those seen by transit agencies in mid-size cities nationwide, where there was a 5.7 percent loss of ridership in 2016.

C-Tran blames the decline on cheap gasoline, more people owning cars, fewer people attending college — a group that often relies on mass transit — and a lack of resources to keep service at pace with local growth.

The agency also suggested that fare changes on some routes limited ridership. A prime example is Route 105 from Salmon Creek to Portland. Riders who were disembarking in downtown Vancouver could previously pay a $1.80 fare, but because the new electronic fare system — the Hop Fastpass — can’t tell where a person is going, they have to pay $3.85.

The Vine, which runs from downtown Vancouver to Vancouver Mall, and Route 60, which goes from downtown Vancouver to Delta Park, replaced Routes 4 and 44.

Together, The Vine and Route 60 got off to a rough start in January due to nasty weather, but ridership has steadily increased since.

In February, the routes eclipsed ridership from the same time in 2016. Ridership jumped again last month and is approaching 2014 ridership levels, nearing 150,000 passengers in May.

Some riders have complained that The Vine has fewer stops along its route than its predecessors. Others don’t like having to transfer to another bus to get to Portland, something that wasn’t necessary before.

C-Tran spokeswoman Christine Selk said the agency has heard both complaints and was unsurprised.

“We understood that some people who would be affected by these operational changes would be unhappy with them,” she said in an email. “We realize that change is difficult, and sometimes it can be inconvenient. That said, these comments have become fewer and farther between as time has passed.”

Selk said there will be another service change in September that will focus on improving routes for those who commute in and out of Portland.

Those routes are a popular element of C-Tran’s service, but they’re struggling to maintain reliable service getting in and out of Portland due to highway congestion.

“The traffic is a huge issue,” Selk said.