One last ride on the weekend transit

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David Haerle | The Vidette  The No. 40 Grays Harbor Transit bus pulls into the Transit Center in downtown Olympia as former Montesano resident Kelsey Bernheine, center in yellow shirt, hugs her fiance Sean Crowley goodbye. He lives in South Aberdeen and takes the bus on weekends to visit Bernheine, who lives in Olympia.
David Haerle | The Vidette  About 20 people rode the No. 40 bus from Olympia to various points in Grays Harbor County late Sunday afternoon.
David Haerle | The Vidette Grays Harbor Transit driver Pal Cheema guides her bus through the rural East County on Sunday. Cheema will go to part-time status once weekend routes are cut in less than two weeks.

Weekend riders of Grays Harbor Transit’s route from the Harbor and through the East County to Olympia and back are none too happy about the decision to cut weekend service at the beginning of September.

They used words such as “terrible,” “very sad” and “insane,” and one rider said transit officials “used a hatchet instead of a scalpel” as they rode or waited for the popular Route 40 bus to and from Olympia on Sunday afternoon.

Other than all the combined “urban routes” in and around Aberdeen and Hoquiam, the service to Olympia is Grays Harbor Transit’s most-used, serving almost 132,000 riders through the first six months of 2013, up more than 16,000 riders from the same period last year, according to numbers provided to The Vidette.

None of the users The Vidette spoke to openly complained about a possible rise in transit rates, but all of them decried cutting off all weekend service around the Harbor and beyond.

“This is people behind a desk making these decisions, and they’re not hurting for money,” said Dana Wilcox of Auburn, after disembarking the bus in downtown Olympia. He took the bus to visit family on the Harbor over the weekend. “It’s expensive to own and drive a car these days. A lot of people, like me, either can’t afford it or choose not to.”

One of those is Darleen Thomas of Hoquiam, who is disabled and quit driving after being involved in some scary accidents.

She uses the bus to get around the Harbor on a day-to-day basis and to get to family in Elma, Centralia and Seattle during the weekends.

“My brother lives in Elma,” she said, “so I’m just going to visit today. But it’s going to be terrible without weekend bus service. A lot of us depend on it. Everybody I like to visit doesn’t work on weekends, so now I can’t visit — or should I be out hitchhiking? It really stinks.”

Thomas said a lot more thought could have gone into the decision-making process, such as trimming the many routes in and around Hoquiam and Aberdeen, instead of simply hacking all weekend service everywhere.

“I don’t like it at all,” she said. “You hear people talking about it every day at all the bus stops, and some of the bus drivers don’t like it either. You can’t carry five bags of groceries across town on the weekend. … They get everybody dependent upon weekend service and then they take it away from us. I think it’s insane.”

The ride from the Harbor to Olympia costs $3 each way, but it’s well worth it to some, who like or need to get away from the Harbor on weekends.

“It’s very sad,” said Ophelia England, who recently moved from Aberdeen a year and a half ago from Oakland, Calif. — via Florida — to find a better, safer place to raise her young children.

“We come up to Olympia just for fun or to go shopping because there’s a lot more here to entertain the kids,” said England. “It’s sad. There goes some of our fun weekend trips.”

Kelsey Bernheine, who graduated from Montesano High in 2008, now lives in Olympia. But her fiance´ Sean Crowley lives in South Aberdeen. They use the bus to visit on his days off — the weekends.

“We won’t be able to see each other as much,” said Crowley.

“It probably means I’m going to have to move back to the Harbor,” said Bernheine, “because I have a baby on the way.”

Pal Cheema, who was driving the Sunday afternoon bus from Olympia to Hoquiam said the cutbacks means she goes from full- to part-time status.

“People still need to get around and out of the house on weekends,” said Cheema. “They could actually use more buses these days because gas prices keep going up and a lot of people can’t afford to drive in this economy.”

While Cheema’s bus had just one bright yellow, 8-by-11-inch sign announcing the weekend cuts, there was no such sign at any of the bus stations beyond Aberdeen, in Olympia or on the bus en route to Olympia earlier in the day. No announcements about the cut to riders were made either.

Mark Carlin, the director of Grays Harbor Transit, told The Vidette that he’ll make sure there are signs on buses and drivers make announcements during the last week of service. The plan is also to do radio ads, he said.

“I know there’s a large segment of our riders, who don’t really pay much attention to the news, so we’ll have to reach out to them,” Carlin said.

Some of the younger riders were shocked to hear of the cuts on Sunday.

“Nobody told me that,” said a surprised Devon Wakeman, 19, of Brady. She boarded the afternoon bus near the mall in Olympia after working her shift for Puget Sound Healthcare. Wakeman, who recently graduated from Montesano High, does not yet have a driver’s license or car and just landed this job a couple of weeks ago.

“That’s a big problem for me, because my employer needs me on Sundays — that’s the one day they really need me to work.”

Josh Nelson of McCleary was also stunned to hear the news.

“That’s going to be a problem,” said the 15-year-old who works at Olympia Furniture, which is owned by his father. “That’s when I work; I only work on weekends.”

Nelson said he could probably catch a ride to and from work from his dad. However, more often than not, Nelson rides the bus at least one way because his dad works such long hours.

“Now, I’m probably going to be working longer hours on the weekends,” he said with a sigh.

Thomas, who got off the bus in Elma just after noon on Sunday, summed up the feeling of most riders as the No. 40 bus rolled into the Elma station.

“Taking away weekend bus service really sucks,” she said. “That’s not a happy thing. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

The last weekend of bus service will be Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. Besides eliminating the normal weekend routes, Carlin said that special paratransit services used mainly for persons with disabilities and seniors will also be eliminated on weekends.

Carlin said many services will be restored if voters approved a one-tenth of one percent sales tax increase, which will be on the ballot this November. If approved, a sales tax measure would provide about $850,000 to Transit, which would come in during the 2014 calendar year.

However, Carlin noted that it would take time to get that money and even if approved by voters it may take another six to eight months to restore services.