story & photos by HANK SIMS
LAST MONDAY WAS ONE OF THE FIRST mornings of the late November cold snap passed through the county. Windshields froze and roads iced up -- nowhere more so than in Willow Creek, where at 8:25 a.m. Auggie Olan left the comfort of his car to prepare his bus for the second run of the morning.
That morning Auggie's wife, Bonnie, decided to come along for the ride, as she often does. The Olans moved to Willow Creek after retiring from the Army. He was a correctional counselor for various military police facilities around the country; she was a linguist. They spent a few years bopping around the states, picking up work as case managers for the mentally ill, before landing in Humboldt County after a visit to Bonnie's sister.
Auggie -- a quiet, ponytailed man in his early 50's who has the air of someone familiar with the rougher sides of the world [photo at right] -- popped the hood of his 12-passenger 1997 Ford StarTrans to check fluid levels, then got on board with his wife to embark on the 11-mile run to Hoopa. Maybe there would be passengers this morning, maybe not, he said.
"I still get people come up to me and say, `I didn't know we had a bus,'" he said. "The majority of people still haven't gotten the word that we're running out here."
Olan is a driver for Klamath-Trinity Non-Emergency Transportation (K-T Net), the little bus line that has become the ride of last resort for Hoopa residents locked up in their valley without a car. For $1.50 ($1.25 for seniors and children) residents can travel between Hoopa and Willow Creek, connecting with the county's Redwood Transit system if they wish.
K-T Net has been running buses through the hills in the eastern part of the county since January 2003. It is a rare beast in the transportation world: a regular bus service created by a group of local residents and run by a nonprofit organization.
Public transit is an expensive proposition, and even government-run services, with their regular infusion of taxpayer dollars, often have a hard time making a go of it, especially in rural areas. In its two-year history K-T Net's supporters have struggled to keep it afloat at times, but they are now on the cusp of making the service a permanent feature of the transportation landscape.
The face of need
Sitting in a conference room adjacent to her office in St. Joseph's Family Health Center in Willow Creek one morning last week, K-T Net Executive Director Jeannie Tussey [photo below, on the right] recounted the incident a few years ago that convinced her to try to establish a bus service in the area.
As she was driving home one stormy morning in the late '90s, she spotted a woman walking alongside the road carrying a small child, perhaps 6 months old. The woman had no umbrella, but she had bundled herself and her child up as best she could. When she pulled over to ask the woman if she needed help, Tussey learned that the boy was ill -- his mother was trying to get to town so she could get him some help.
"It was pouring rain outside," Tussey said. "The baby was burning up -- at least a 103 degree fever. He was so sick. I thought, `Oh my gosh! The baby could die!' I drove her right here so she didn't have to be in the rain anymore."
The woman didn't have a car. She wasn't the only one; a shocking number of people in Hoopa -- the farthest-flung settlement of any substantial size in the county -- live without cars. According to the 2000 Census, nearly 16 percent of the households in the Hoopa Valley's 95546 ZIP code have no access to a vehicle. Countywide, only 8.7 percent of households are without a car; over half of them are in Arcata and Eureka, cities with municipal public transit services and walkable neighborhoods. Thirty-six percent of the valley's residents have incomes below the poverty line, compared with 19.5 percent in all of Humboldt County.
Tussey, who previously worked as a caregiver for senior citizens, thought that something needed to be done. She formed a nonprofit agency and recruited her friend, Willow Creek architect Joan Briggs [photo above, on the left] , to help her get a bus service off the ground.
Briggs, who today serves as the president of K-T Net's board of directors, said that she might not have accepted the challenge if she knew how difficult it would be.
"Transportation, for people who are not well-off -- it's a huge issue," said Briggs. "To get to jobs, to get to training, to get to the doctor's, to get to the store -- for all of those things, you need public transportation. And it's a really difficult thing to accomplish in a rural area, because you've got so many miles to cover and you don't have the ridership you do in a large community."
Not your normal bus
K-T Net's 8:30 a.m. bus goes up Highway 96 to Hoopa, does a spin around Loop Road and hits the Hoopa Valley Tribe's K'ima:w Medical Center. It then goes to town and parks for a bit in front of the service's bus shelter outside of Ray's Food Place. That's where, in theory, people gather if they want to get a ride into Willow Creek or to connect with the 9:30 a.m. Redwood Transit bus to the coast.
In practice, things are a bit looser. About two-thirds of the way into the drive to Hoopa, Auggie spotted a young woman walking alongside the road. He tapped his horn and pulled over, and 18-year-old Ichua Little climbed aboard.
Little hadn't heard of the bus before and was somewhat surprised to find herself on it. She shyly asked Auggie if he was going out by K'ima:w -- she was headed toward a friend's place by there. Normally she would have driven, she said, but her new car got wrecked a few weeks ago.
After the woman got off, Bonnie mused about the various kinds of people who ended up on the bus. There were plenty of elderly folks, she said, and plenty of poor ones. Then there were also those who, like Little, had a car and a driver's license at one time, but for whatever reason -- and there were plenty of them in the valley -- lost one or the other.
"The people who do have cars, sometimes they get [their licenses] taken away," she said. "But they still have to have a way to get around."
No one was at the downtown Hoopa bus stop, so Auggie pulled out and headed back to Willow Creek. Along the way, he spotted Connie Taylor, [photo at right] a regular passenger, walking and pulled over to let her on. Auggie teased Taylor, a weaver, about the basket she promised to make him. Taylor laughed and said that it was in the works. A couple of minutes later she got off at a family member's place about four miles down Highway 96 -- miles that she would have spent perhaps an hour walking to.
She was glad for the ride: "Having the bus, it makes it a little more flexible," she said.
K-T Net had existed in embryonic form for a few years while Tussey and Briggs studied transit regulations and tried to find funding. It got its first big boost when the county donated the StarTrans, which used to be the its "Quail" bus, serving southern Humboldt. Soon Tussey -- a dedicated grant-writer -- began collecting money from various organizations. The Humboldt Area Foundation gave her an early grant, as did the Senior Citizens Foundation of Humboldt County. Larger charities, such as the California Endowment and the McClean Foundation, began to take an interest.
Local businesses also chipped in. Renner Petroleum gave it a discount on gasoline. Whitson Plumbing and Electric donated the manpower to transport and install the Hoopa bus shelter. Still, all the myriad expenses that go into running a bus -- gasoline and insurance, on top of normal business expenses like workers' compensation -- were coming from charitable organizations.
It's difficult to run a business on grant money, though. Earlier this year, K-T Net weathered a four-month dry spell when it seemed like none of the grants Tussey had applied for were coming through. Tussey and Auggie Olan worked without pay; community members volunteered their time to call people who might wish to donate to the service, raising gas and insurance money to keep the bus on the road. The crisis ended in August, when a $30,000 grant from the Self-Development of People foundation (SDOP), a program of the Presbyterian Church (USA), came through.
All the while, more and more people have been taking the bus. Transportation planners say that it takes at least a year of running a bus route before all potential riders really become aware of the fact that it exists. Bonnie Olan, who serves on K-T Net's board of directors, thought that it might take longer still in the valley.
"In Hoopa culture especially, change comes slow," she said. "It takes a long while of being out there for people to notice you."
Still, ridership has been steadily growing, having risen from 60 passengers in February 2003 -- the service's first full month of operation -- to a high of 240 passengers in September. And K-T Net itself is expanding -- it recently received a grant to buy a second bus, which will be used for door-to-door transportation for people who need to get to a doctor's appointment or to the hospital. The organization has dreams of someday running buses north to Weitchpec and Orleans, and east along Highway 299 to Burnt Ranch. But first it will have to get regular funding for the Hoopa-Willow Creek service.
Link to the world
At 9:30, Auggie was standing outside the van, having a smoke and waiting at the Willow Creek bus shelter when the Redwood Transit van from the coast arrived. Eight or nine people had made the morning journey up to Willow Creek that morning; Linc McCovey [photo below left] was among the last to disembark. Auggie hustled over to take McCovey's bags and stow them in his van's luggage rack for the trip back to Hoopa.
McCovey, 64, is a courteous man who worked as the Hoopa Valley Tribe's maintenance supervisor for many years, before a late-blooming case of diabetes weakened his legs and took away 70 percent of his sight. (Fellow passenger Joe Tate [photo below right] , a salty character who was on the bus because his truck had broken down in Eureka the previous night, jumped in when McCovey spoke of his illness: "McCovey's been here so long, you could take him out in the woods blindfolded and he could still show you stuff!" he said). McCovey was on his way back home from Fortuna, where he had spent Thanksgiving weekend with his daughter and grandchildren.
"Used to be, I'd jump in my car and drive down to San Diego to visit my other daughter once or twice a year," McCovey said. "That's few and far between, these days."
But McCovey can still cobble together rides to where he needs to go, he said. The K'ima:w Medical Center takes him to and from his doctors' appointments and K-T Net links him up with the world outside the valley.
"I know the system now," he said. "This bus here is a start to making connections with Greyhound or Amtrak, to make connections to the southland. My medical transportation is taken care of, but my `entertainment transportation' -- if you can call it that -- is left to the transit system. And it works. There's more people that should use it."
Tate got off at Margaret's House of Beauty on Highway 96, vowing to gather a crew of friends to take him back to Eureka and rescue his truck. A few minutes later, Auggie pulled the bus up to McCovey's house and unloaded his luggage for him. A neighbor's dog rushed up to greet McCovey, who said his good-byes and thanked the Olans for the ride. After he left, Bonnie praised McCovey, one of her favorite regular passengers, and was glad that she and her husband could contribute to preserving a man's dignity in his age and infirmity.
"It's so neat, because he doesn't have to depend on other people," she said. "He can do what he wants, when he wants."
Keeping it rolling
K-T Net knows that it can not survive forever on a patchwork of grants from charitable organizations. That they have done so for as long as they have is something of a miracle. In the first place, such grants are rare and fiercely competitive. More importantly, foundations such as the SDOP don't often give money for day-to-day operations; they usually like to see their money spent on tangible goods -- a new bus or a shelter, something that can be photographed. If the service is to survive in the long-term, it must get steady funding from governmental sources.
Briggs said that she recently got a verbal promise from the Hoopa Valley Tribe to the effect that the tribe would give K-T Net a certain amount of money each year, but hasn't yet received confirmation on paper. Tribal Chairman Lyle Marshall could not be reached for comment. But what Briggs and the K-T Net board of directors are most hoping for is a small slice of the transportation dollars that the county receives every year from the state.
As required by the state Transportation Development Act of 1971, a percentage of all sales tax collected in Humboldt County is returned to local governments to pay for transportation projects. According to Spencer Clifton, executive director of the Humboldt County Association of Governments (HCAOG), those funds total about $3.4 million a year.
By law, public transit services receive the highest priority when it comes time to spend TDA dollars -- with one catch. To qualify, transit operations must fulfill "unmet needs that are reasonable to meet," a bureaucratic formulation which basically means that recipients of the funds should be able to pay for a certain part of their operation from fares.
After the "unmet needs that are reasonable to meet" get their slice of the money, excess funds are split among local governments. They may spend the money on their own transit systems or road construction and repair, as they choose. Currently, Clifton said, about $500,000 to $600,000 of the county of Humboldt's TDA budget is spent on road repair.
Briggs believes that a small portion of that -- around $50,000 yearly -- would be enough to keep K-T Net on its feet permanently. If the organization can get that much from the county, it stands to qualify for matching funds from the federal government. Lately, she has been avidly making the case for K-T Net to the powers-that-be, both at HCAOG and the county. The fact that the service has been up and running for two years now means that she has a wealth of data on ridership that she believes proves that a Hoopa-Willow Creek service is "reasonable to meet." But she knows that the county is having its own budget problems and officials might be loathe to give up even a small percentage of their own road-repair budget. Briggs is scheduled to meet with Supervisor Jill Geist and Public Works Director Allen Campbell to discuss the issue next week.
"We keep working on it," Briggs said. "We're hopeful, that's all we can say. We're going to go talk, and we're going to try our best."
A boost for Hoopa
Shortly before he had reached McCovey's house, Auggie answered a radio call from K-T Net Office Manager Carmen Davison. Deborah Albers had called in to ask if she could get a ride to the Hoopa post office. Auggie was headed over to Albers' place when a man walking along the road flagged him down, flashing a somewhat crazed grin toward the bus and flailing his arms energetically.
"I can't afford to pay," the new rider said as he came on board, reeking of marijuana odor.
"No problem," Auggie told him. "Maybe some other time."
"Yeah, I need to go to town tomorrow," the new rider said. There was a pause. "Yeah, I can't pay you until the first."
Auggie seemed satisfied. He later said that it was common for people to settle their debts with the bus twice a month -- sometimes people skipped out, but not often. Once a man tried to pay his fare with smoked salmon. Auggie told him that he couldn't accept it; the guy gave him the salmon anyway, then paid his debt in cash later the next week.
"It was one of those things where he didn't want to ride for free," Auggie explained.
The stoned passenger got off near town, then waved merrily at the bus as it pulled away. A few minutes later, Auggie arrived at Albers' house. She greeted Auggie and Bonnie as she got on board, a young daughter in tow. She strapped her preschool-aged daughter into the bus's built-in car seat, and with a comic sense of her own misfortunes began to bring the Olans up to date on all the things that had happened since she last saw them. She broke up with her boyfriend, she said, and had spent a night in jail.
A mother of eight who looked like she hadn't yet reached 40, Albers and her family probably count as some of the most frequent K-T Net users. She has teenagers who live with their father in Eureka -- when they come to visit her, they ride Redwood Transit to Willow Creek and then grab the K-T bus to Hoopa. "Brings them right to me," she said. She takes the bus often herself, but she used to use it even more, riding down to Eureka for training on becoming a hair stylist. Money became short; she had to quit.
It wasn't hard to imagine Albers and her daughter out in the cold, having to walk the couple of miles to town. Instead, the little girl was happily watching the landscape go by, screaming "horsie!" when she spotted a few in a field. Not surprisingly, Albers is a big booster of K-T Net. "The bus is the best thing that's ever happened in Hoopa, I think," she said, right before getting off at the post office. Wryly, she added: "There's a need, believe me."
K-T Net will be hosting a community pot-luck/Christmas party this Saturday, 12 p.m., at the VFW Hall in Willow Creek. Call K-T Net at (530) 629-1192 for details.
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