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When Katrina DiFonzo’s bus arrived at the downtown transit mall, she didn’t pause to drop coins into the fare box; she simply hopped on and sat down. As of Tuesday, anyone who wants to ride a Corvallis Transit System bus or the Beaver Bus can do the same.

CTS became fareless on Feb. 1 because of a Transit Operations Fee passed by the Corvallis City Council. It added $2.75 to single-family residential customers’ bill each month. The fee is one of three new Sustainability Initiatives Fees totaling $4.05 a month for most customers.

The other two fees support maintenance of sidewalks and city trees.

The fee for transit operations replaced the portion of the city’s general fund (property taxes) previously dedicated to transit, making those funds available for other uses such as the library, parks and recreation, police and fire departments. It also insulates the transit fund from possible cuts to the general fund to deal with the city’s $3.1 million revenue shortfall.

The fee was adopted by the Corvallis City Council after passing three separate council votes between September and December 2010.

The Corvallis Transit System has a dozen routes that cover the city from about 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. The Beaver Bus has three routes that run late on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, until about 2:45 a.m., when the university is in session. It’s open to both students and the general public.

Linda Hartzell of Corvallis raved about the newly fareless transit system as she rode the No. 4 bus up Buchanan Avenue and down Highland Drive.

“I like it ... I might take the bus more often now,” she said.

However, other bus systems that connect to CTS — such as the Philomath Connection, 99 Express and Linn-Benton Loop — still charge a fare.

DiFonzo, who is studying art at Linn-Benton Community College, rides the Linn-Benton Loop to classes in Albany and is able to ride that route for free by showing her student ID. Now, her entire commute is fareless.

“A lot of people don’t know about the change yet,” DiFonzo said on Tuesday. “They (CTS) need to hang a banner down here,” she said, indicating the transfer station.

Bus driver Anna Hook agreed that many riders haven’t yet heard about the change. A few riders had their money ready when they spotted the “free” sign over the fare box.

“Their eyes light up,” she said. “Some asked, ‘Just for today?’”

“I say, ‘no, not just for today.’”

City transit director Tim Bates said that CTS was “a little hampered at getting the word out” because of the prolonged process to pass and implement the Sustainability Initiative Fees and a recent recommendation from the city’s budget commission that the council rescind those fees.

“The worst thing would have been to publicize and then have to pull back at the last second,” Bates said. “It’s a city ordinance, it could be undone.”

That hurdle cleared, the city put the message out on its mobile billboards Tuesday: The words “Free Today” flashed on the electronic destination boards located above bus windshields.

“Of course, we hope there’s a big bump (in ridership),” Bates said, and the city will be tracking how the fareless system affects bus use.

Riders can consult the city’s route maps, provided at bus shelters and online at http://bit.ly/corvallistransit, or use Google Transit to map out trips around the city. For more information, call CTS customer service at  541-766-6998.

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