amtrak connector

Driver William Allison does a training run Thursday morning on the Corvallis-Amtrak Connector bus. The new shuttle service will begin ferrying passengers between Corvallis and the Albany train station next week.

A new program offered by Benton County aims to make it easier for local residents to ride the train.

Starting next Thursday, the Corvallis-Amtrak Connector will provide regular bus service between several points in Corvallis and the passenger rail station in Albany, with five daily runs aligned with the schedules for Amtrak’s Cascades and Coast Starlight trains. The shuttle will run Thursday-Monday and most major holidays.

“Those are the peak ridership days on the Amtrak Cascades,” said Lee Lazaro, special transportation coordinator for Benton County. “The schedule is timed to coincide with all of the northbound and some of the southbound arrivals.”

The Cascades train serves 18 cities between Eugene and Vancouver, British Columbia, including stops in Portland and Seattle. It is jointly operated by the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation in association with Amtrak, the national passenger rail service. The Coast Starlight, operated by Amtrak, connects Seattle and Los Angeles, with 29 stops up and down the West Coast.

Funded with about $192,000 in startup grants from the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Corvallis-Amtrak Connector is a one-year pilot designed to test demand from local residents.

Dial-A-Bus, a private nonprofit ride service, will operate the Corvallis-Amtrak Connector under contract with Benton County. The county has purchased a bus with room for 14 seated passengers, or 12 plus two riders in wheelchairs, as well as luggage. In a pinch, the bus may be able to accommodate more than that.

“If we really got crowded on a run, we could take standing passengers if we had to,” Lazaro said. “We certainly don’t want to leave folks behind.”

The bus will make five runs a day, collecting passengers at five locations in Corvallis — Oregon State University, the downtown transit station, two local hotels and a bus shelter on Northeast Circle Boulevard — before proceeding to the Albany Amtrak station. The first run of the day will start at 5:10 a.m., with the last leaving Albany to return to Corvallis at 7:55 p.m. after the final train departs the station.

That should fill a major gap in current bus service for area residents trying to make a rail connection. The limited runs available now between Corvallis and the Albany Depot are not well-coordinated with Amtrak schedules, and no local buses run late enough to meet the final train of the evening.

Lazaro said the shuttle service will try to make allowances for train delays but may not be able to accommodate everyone.

“We’ll wait if we can,” he said. “It’s at the driver’s discretion … we can’t wait so long that it makes us late for the next run.”

The fare to ride the Corvallis-Amtrak Connector is $5, but all rides will be free through Labor Day in an effort to jumpstart the new service. If usage is high, Lazaro hopes to get additional grants from ODOT to continue the operation after the initial trial period.

Michelle Godfrey, a spokeswoman for the state agency, said there’s no guarantee money will be available to keep the project going beyond the initial funding period, but strong usage numbers would likely weigh in favor of a follow-up grant application.

Since taking over responsibility for operating Amtrak’s Cascades trains in Oregon in 2013, ODOT has been working to stabilize the service and shore up ridership. The service is funded primarily by ticket revenue, so more riders translates directly to better financial stability.

“Ridership has been very gradually ticking up,” Godfrey said. “We’re doing everything we can to improve the service and increase people’s awareness of the service so we can continue to increase ridership.”

For complete schedule information on the Corvallis-Amtrak Connector, visit the program’s website at www.corvallistoamtrak.com.

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.