The bus sits in the McKenzie Bridge Ranger Station while passengers are inside the station.
Lane Transit District's No. 91, which serves commuters and recreational enthusiasts, takes bus riders on a 53-mile trek to McKenzie Bridge.
By Trevor Davis
Louie Polanco III, a 5-year-old from Springfield who is better known as “LT,” said he wanted to see snow one day in February. His wish seemed unlikely to come true: “LT” squinted as the sun shined in his face, and blue skies blanketed the southern Willamette Valley that day. The boy’s father, however, had the power to make snow appear.
“LT” and his dad, Louie Palanco II, stepped onto Lane Transit District bus No. 91 at the downtown Eugene bus station around 8:20 a.m. en route to McKenzie Bridge — more than 50 miles east of Eugene, halfway to the Central Oregon city of Bend on Highway 126. The McKenzie Bridge route is LTD’s most scenic and longest route.
The route to McKenzie Bridge launched five years after LTD started as public transportation agency, LTD spokesman Andy Vobora said. Operating rural routes, which primarily serve commuters, is difficult because they are costly.
From cityscape to backcountry
Route No. 91 travels to pint-size towns: Leaburg, Walterville, Vida, Blue River. As the bus passed South 79th Street in Springfield on Main Street, houses and mill smokestacks start to disappear. A sign reading “McKenzie R.” and “Bend” pointed drivers east along McKenzie Highway with an arrow. The bus started to bounce on the bumpy road as the engine roared from the rear of the bus. Wind howled against the front. Log trucks whizzed past, heading in the other direction.
A robot voice announced that the bus was about to pass Walterville, and a man pulled on a string to get off. A while later, Polanco and “LT” looked out the window during the ride. They stared at towering trees, snow-capped foothills and waterways along the highway.
“It’s relaxing,” Palanco said. “Unlike the routes in town where you have lots of people this is a fairly quiet ride – maybe a dozen riders at any given point.”
Palanco and his son devised a plan.
“If there’s any snow when we get up there, we’ll play in the snow for a few minutes,” Palanco said.
When the bus passed through Blue River, about 40 miles east of Eugene, six riders sat on the bus. The bus pulled into the parking lot of the McKenzie River Ranger Station about 9:35 a.m.
Bus driver Toni Hill rushed inside the ranger station to use the bathroom. Palanco and “LT” treaded through snow, crushing it with their steps. Palanco took a photo of his son in front of the ranger station sign.
Get a feel for the McKenzie Bridge bus route.
Cory Wall, a receptionist at the ranger station, says this particular trip doesn’t have many people when compared to summer trips. He said he sees more recreational enthusiasts during the summer. They ride the bus to camp, fish, bike, backpack or hike, he said.
“We also just see people who want to get out of town,” Wall said.
After about 10 minutes, Hill walked from the ranger station to the bus, which sat in the parking lot with its blinkers on and engine off. She revived the engine, and the riders slowly walked back to the parking lot.
Route crucial for residents
As the bus wound its way back toward Eugene, it stopped often in the McKenzie Bridge area. The bus became nearly full.
At one stop, Rosie Winters boarded the bus and walked to the back, where she quickly turned on her iPod.
Winters, who lives in the McKenzie Bridge area, said she relies on No. 91 to visit her grandparents outside Springfield and to attend classes at Lane Community College in Eugene. Winters wants to become a dental hygienist. She said the bus is vital because riding the bus is cheaper than paying for gas and driving herself into town.
“It is to a lot of people, because lots of people don’t have transportation,” she said, adding that severe weather conditions often leave people stranded.
Winters said she keeps herself entertained on the trip by listening to music, or she talks to fellow riders.
“You get to know everybody on here, and talk to everybody and listen to what they have to say,” Winters said. “You hear a lot of philosophies on life.”
Winters said she mostly sees commuters on the bus.
“You see continuous regulars — people who go into doctor’s appointments, or people who ride the bus into town because they’re bored up here. I know a lot of people who do that,” Winters said. “If you rode this bus for a couple days, you’d figure out everybody who got on — where they got on, where they get off. You just start to know everybody.”
During the summer, more tourists ride the bus, Winters said, especially those attending the Eugene Celebration and the Oregon Country Fair in Veneta.
She added visitors want to look at the landscape along the bus route.
“You get people taking their fishing poles for those (who are) going to the McKenzie River. There are a lot of bicycles, too,” LTD’s Vobora said. “I’ve even done that with some friends — catching the early bus, riding our bicycles over to Sisters, then catching the 4 o’clock bus back into town.”
The cost of a journey
Offering service to Lane County’s rural areas is difficult, Vobora said.
“There’s so much demand for service around the area, it’s a real challenge to provide higher level of services there,” he said.
The trips from Eugene to the county’s rural areas outside the city are also expensive because of the rising cost of fuel, Vobora said. If LTD offers more service to rural areas, the transit district could increase its operating costs even more. The federal government requires transit districts to offer curb-to-curb van service for senior citizens, called “paratransit” service, if the district operates regular service to the area.
“As we increase service — Cottage Grove is a good example — we run the risk of having to provide paratransit service, which is very costly,” Vabora said.
For now, LTD plans on keeping its service to rural Lane County the same, and no services are planned to be cut.
Routes to rural areas, including McKenzie Bridge, have remained largely unchanged since they were introduced, Vobora said. LTD added Creswell and Cottage Grove trips in 1999 and 2000.
The district is forced to balance adequate service and operating costs.
The LTD Board of Directors, appointed by the governor, has the authority to expand service anywhere in Lane County, Vabora said. LTD, however, usually waits for a city government to approach the board before expanding service; then LTD evaluates the proposal.
If McKenzie Bridge area residents wanted No. 91 to make more trips throughout the week or expand service east of McKenzie Bridge, the Lane County Commissioners would have to approach LTD because no incorporated cities are along the route past Springfield.
For now, bus No. 91 serves tourists and commuters along scenic Highway 126.
The bus rolled into the Eugene Station at around 11:30 a.m. After a nap, “LT” walked with his father to the front door of the bus.
“Thank you,” the boy said to Hill.
He walked off the bus with Polanco, who had a photo of “LT” playing in the snow saved on a cell phone.