Officially Speaking - You Are On Your Own

Every morning the 60X bus does a sixty mile run from Salem, Oregon, to Lincoln City on the coast, making a few round trips throughout the day with the last return leaving Lincoln City for Salem at 5:30pm.  As a strong advocate for public transportation, this has been a convenient, affordable, and preferable way for me to spend a day at the ocean. I’ve made this trip several times with complete enjoyment.

The weather and events taking place in Lincoln City on Saturday, June 25, 2022, seemed ideal for a visit. So I joined more than ten other random passengers, ranging in age from ten years old to eighty, on the 8:30am bus leaving Salem that morning, looking forward to a beautiful day at the beach.

By 5:00pm that evening all of us passengers from the morning trip were already gathered to catch the return bus back to Salem, scheduled to leave at 5:30pm. Though the sun was warm and bright, we huddled in the designated shelter to escape a sharp breeze at the marked stop in the Chinook Winds Casino parking lot. We all chatted with an “early bird gets the worm” kind of confidence that missing the bus was not in our cards.

By the time the bus was ten minutes overdue, excuses about heavy traffic seemed logical. When it reached the thirty minute mark, everyone started searching and calling any available information line, especially the “Alert Line” number listed in the 60X NW Connector brochure. Everyone heard the same “Alert” message which was.... there was no alert. According to the recording, all was in perfect order back at the closed WAVE/Connector office. So we tried to keep soothing ourselves with more belief in the delaying power of heavy traffic.

At 6:30pm, an hour overdue, the traffic fairytale became a horror story. Some turned to venting frustration (seriously) on each other, regardless of being strangers. Others tried sucking insight through any authoritative straw within reach. The first straw was a Lincoln City police officer patrolling the Casino parking lot. For me, he was also the straw that unexpectedly broke the camel’s back, exposing an utter lack of inter-agency communication which would be essential in a large-scale evacuation.  Lincoln City sits in an official Tsunami Zone.

We spilled out our plight to the young officer as a desperate appeal for simple information.  We’d tried every online and telephone resource available, yet had absolutely no clue about why the bus hadn’t arrived or what we might reasonably expect to happen next. His response was curt and demoralizing.

He said the County handles public transportation, not the police department. No information is exchanged between the agencies. He had no access to any of the information that might help us. Basically he told us, “You are on your own”, then got back into his police car and drove away.

Now consider this scenario, similar to what was taking place on June 25th in Lincoln City: The coastal area is packed with visitors attending various family-oriented events. Traffic is dense and the visitors, laden with child-related baggage, are being encouraged to park and use public transportation but with little avail. There is much confusion and congestion. Then, suddenly, a twin to the 1964 Alaska quake happens, leaving about four hours to accomplish a total evacuation. For a reality check on possible consequences, here is a slide from a presentation by Bob Butler of Oregon State University’s Cascadia Earthscope Earthquake and Tsunami Education Program.

In such a situation, real-time tracking/status data of all suitable and available evacuation (public transportation) vehicles would be essential. Indeed, Oregon even has a system that seems capable of accomplishing this. The RAPTOR (Real-time Assessment and Planning Tool for Oregon) 

Having both public and private/government interfaces, it is logical to assume that the private interface could provide accurate up-to-the-minute detail to government agencies at EVERY level and that those agencies would work to coordinate and maximize its utilization.

Some might argue against outfitting lowly public transit buses with real-time tracking and status but the much stronger argument in support of it is the whole foundation of Emergency Preparedness. Being prepared is right in the name and it also implies constant real life testing. The fact that the 60X seemed to completely drop out of existence would be a warning that some communication chain was not working...before it put to the test of a massive disaster.

Now back to the abandonment story that played out in the Chinook Winds parking lot.

Not long after the police officer left, a Lincoln County Transit bus stopped and we questioned/pleaded with that driver to help us get some kind of reliable status information. Echoing the police response, she said she could not. None of the systems communicated with each other. Maybe the bus was stuck in traffic (now nearing two hours late). But there was nothing she could do to help. We were on our own.

Next we tried the Casino for help. Three of us, all women, went in to Customer Service, quickly laid out our situation and request for information. The agent handed us a photocopy of the NW Connector brochure we already had. He said the Casino was not responsible for public transportation (even though it provided them with a convenient stream of customer access). There was nothing the Casino could do for us. We were on our own.

Also located on the 60X bus route, we called the Spirit Mountain Casino in case they'd heard some word. But the receptionist there only suggested we try looking at the Trip Check page on the Oregon RAPTOR (referenced above). So in the middle of a huge parking lot, with only meager cell phones to browse a data intense website, we struggled until one of us confirmed there was no information available. It was an absurd and data-costly undertaking.

At three hours into this ordeal tempers sparked with recognition of our miserable overnight options. Lincoln City motels were sold out and, even if available, started at two hundred fifty. The ten of us faced an entire night on the streets until the 6:20am bus was supposed to arrive. In the midst of this, a NW Connector bus on a different route happened to land at the stop and we seized the opportunity. Our two most vocal members pushed next the driver. He became visibly overwhelmed as we yelled out demands and vented frustration.

For a few moments he refused to contact anyone in authority but soon relented and called the dispatcher who did say that the 60X bus had broken down and nothing was coming to replace it. The dispatcher then actually told us, you are on your own. This sent our two vocal members out of the bus and on to the street in front of it, blocking its movement until NW Connector presented a responsible solution to the problem.

Traffic exiting the parking lot backed up behind the bus which caught the attention of bystanders who inquired about our dilemma. They then went to the Casino management to advocate on our behalf. The bystanders pointed out to the Casino that ignoring this was definitely not a positive PR move. Meanwhile, either the bus driver or the dispatcher called the police who then got involved with the Casino.

In what seemed like a matter of mere minutes, a police officer approached us to say the Casino was in the process of checking that its insurance would cover one of its drivers to take us all back to Salem in a Casino shuttle bus. Another few minutes went by and an agent from the Casino appeared to tell us the transport had been cleared and a driver would be ready in about twenty minutes.

Nearly four long and distraught hours after we were scheduled to leave Lincoln City we shuttled our way back to Salem thanks to the belated PR instincts of Spirit Mountain. I will board the 60X bus again sometime because public transport is worth supporting but my level of trust has certainly eroded.