FALLS CITY — Thursday morning Richard Faber uttered a phrase that people should get used to hearing from him: “Make sure you put your seat belt on.”
Faber, the driver for the new Falls City Direct Connect bus service, drove his first official routes on Thursday, driving from Falls City to Dallas and back again four times. The first day didn’t see a lot of riders, but that didn’t surprise the people who worked about a year on getting the free service up and running.
“The longer it runs, the more people we will get,” Faber said just before closing the bus doors and pulling away from Mountain Gospel Church, the pick-up and drop-off spot in Falls City.
It has stops at the Polk County Veterans Service Office, Flaming Medical Clinic, Walmart, the Oregon Department of Human Services office, and the Academy Building, where Polk County Public Health and Family & Community Outreach departments are located.
Trips to Dallas take off from Falls City four times a day on Tuesdays and Thursday, except for the second Tuesday of the month, when the route goes to Monmouth.
Monmouth stops are Monmouth Public Library, Waremart, Central Community Resource Center/Health Center, Polk County Behavioral Health and the Total Community Health Clinic.
Marie McCandless, Polk County Veterans Service Officer, said she’s thrilled to have her office in Dallas be a stop on the route.
“I think it’s huge. Getting vets to the office is one of the biggest hiccups we have, letting them know we are here and getting them here,” she said. “We don’t always have two people to go and do a home visit.”
Falls City Direct Connect’s free service is paid with a grant from Willamette Valley Community Health, the local coordinated care organization for Polk and Marion counties.
A group of county and Falls City representatives began meeting about a year ago to talk about the lack of transportation options available to Falls City residents.
With only 950 residents, it was a stretch for most traditional public transportation systems to offer service in the community, said Brent DeMoe, the Family & Community Outreach director.
People on what became known at the Falls City Transportation Committee had to think outside the box. The group consisted of Polk County department leaders, service organization leaders, Salem Health representatives, former Falls City Mayor Terry Ungricht, Lynn Bailey with the Falls City School District, and residents Donna Creekmore and Teresa Vodden.
Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope, who serves on the WVCH board, also assisted the effort.
“I was told by a community leader that transportation was broken, and it could never be fixed in Polk County,” said Mona K-Hinds, the Polk County principal youth advisor with Community Services Consortium and one of the original committee members. “Those are like fighting words.”
She said the first suggestion was finding a donated bus and have a volunteer drive it.
The more time passed, the more ideas they developed, and eventually it was suggested that the group apply for a grant.
Beth Freelander, with Family & Community Outreach, submitted the grant to WVCH for $24,000.
Polk County had an underused, 12-passenger bus available, which meant the grant money could stretch even further. DeMoe said the funds will pay for a year of service.
With financing secured, the group took months surveying Falls City residents to come up with a schedule that best fit people’s needs.
The service will be re-evaluated throughout the year and perhaps expanded to run on more days if the need is there, DeMoe said.
“I’m hoping they want more,” DeMoe said. “My commitment is to do it for a year no matter what.”
Cynthia Ross, with Goodwill Job Connection and group member, said consistency is important in a community that has seen services leave over the years.
“For this community, it’s been a long time,” Ross said. “They used to have a police department. It’s gone. They used to have a gas station. It’s gone. The library might close next year. A lot of stuff is disappearing, so when you’ve been around long enough, you understand why there is no trust because things just disappear.”
Faber also will have a role to play in making connections with riders that goes beyond driving them from point A to point B. As he gets to know the community better, he will start helping residents connect with other services. That might be helping them find a doctor, dentist or vet for their pets, or assist with making appointments.
DeMoe said Faber’s job is 20 hours per week, with two full days spent driving the routes. The rest of the time he can help riders with other needs.
“I can do some of the leg work, the phone work, I can do that for them,” Faber said.
On Thursday, members of the committee met in Falls City for a “maiden voyage” send-off for Falls City Direct Connect.
The early morning coffee-and-doughnuts party was the culmination of the effort that began in October 2016.
“It was kind of cool. People are excited about it,” Faber said. “A lot of people worked for quite a while to get this done. It was great to see.”