Klamath Tribes’ Quail Trail Transit Program adds 2 new buses to existing fleet; 2 new SUVs for medical transport program

The Klamath Tribes Quail Trail bus service will be adding two brand-new Ford F-450s, each with a capacity of 14 passengers, to its current fleet to supplement routes between Chiloquin, Klamath Falls, and Beatty. They are wheelchair accessible and more fuel-efficient than the current buses. Two of the four current buses, each with a capacity of 22 passengers, are Ford F-550s. But with bigger engines and thus costlier repairs after breakdowns, the time is now for the new purchases. The Tribes also operate two older Ford F-450s – though they are also near the end of their tenure due to high mileage.

Michele Carson, Transit Program Manager within the Planning Department, noted the difficulties in maintaining the status quo of the fleet. “They’re much bigger breakdowns,” she said, pointing out that breakdowns happen several times in a calendar year. “If it breaks down, you’re going to pay between $3,000 and $5,000 every time you hit the shop.”

According to Carson, the old F-550s each have around 380,000 miles under their belts, while the F-450s have accrued around 200,000 miles each. This kind of mileage is not sustainable. “We need to be rid of them,” Carson added, “but we are going to keep one behind just in case we need it.”

An Oregon Department of Transportation Needs-Based CARES Grant is funding the purchase of the two new buses.

In addition to the two new buses, the Tribes is acquiring two new SUVs for medical transport to various medical facilities throughout Oregon state, including Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls. Potential passengers just have to meet the criteria to be eligible. “The criteria are an individual must be 60 or older; if they’re disabled and under 60, we can do that; the individual doesn’t have to be a tribal member, and it’s open to the public. All of our grants are open to the public,” said Carson. The Transit Program contracts with Translink, an Oregon Health Plan program, to ensure medical transport for those seeking assistance.

The Transit Program endured low passenger counts on its daily routes as a result of COVID, and those numbers have steadily recovered since the pandemic was officially declared over by the Biden Administration in April 2023.

As a result of lower passenger turnout, Carson is not concerned about the lower passenger capacity of the two new buses, though she does anticipate ridership returning to pre-pandemic levels.

“We struggled during COVID because you had to be so many feet apart,” said Carson. “We weren’t getting the people because so many folks were afraid to ride.” She added that her routes never recorded a single case of COVID.

In 2020, HEPA filters were added to the buses to help mitigate the spread of COVID. Carson beamed with pride while explaining the diligence of her team.

“If a passenger got on with even just a sniffle, John was always putting the filters on,” said Carson, explaining the commitment of the drivers. “And they were manual. So, you could just flip a switch, and they would be on. And our other full-time driver, Pat, keeps those buses tidy. She’s up at 4 a.m. and has those buses ready by 5 a.m.”

Carson and her office co-worker, Transit Program Specialist Ron Hugulet, staffed the program. They manage two full-time and seven part-time bus drivers and medical transport for individuals requiring assistance.

Recovering the passenger count to pre-pandemic numbers will require time and patience. Carson pointed out that the buses were generally half-occupied on any given route before the pandemic. Now, she speculates that they average 50-65 passengers a day on all routes combined, which is still a dramatic improvement from peak COVID. The routes accumulate 310 miles throughout the course of the day.

Carson also emphasized the importance of the routes to the citizens of Chiloquin and Klamath Falls. For individuals from Chiloquin, which lacks adequate grocery stores, accessing grocery stores and food produce in Klamath Falls becomes a health matter. Likewise, some Klamath tribal members living in Klamath Falls ride the bus to the clinic in Chiloquin, said Carson. People also ride the bus to grade, high, college, and work.

Buying the two lower-capacity buses is necessitated by the fact that any bus exceeding a capacity of 14 passengers requires its driver to hold a Commercial Driver’s License or CDL. “And if they do pursue it,” said Carson, explaining most individuals’ motivation for getting a CDL, “they’re pursuing it to go do trucking.” Despite some of the challenges the Transit Program has faced in recent years, Carson expressed optimism for the future of her department, “Just get on a bus, come ride,” she said. “It’s a great ride when you don’t have to drive that dangerous road every day.”