Bus review: Line 297
This is the first in a series of posts I want to do reviewing the various bus lines in TriMet’s system. Of course I’d like to drive them more than once before forming an opinion about them, but with this temporary line coming to an end May 31, figured I need to get this one documented quick.
Oregon is an oddball state. Home to majestic mountains, unending forests, clear mountain streams, and also abysmal high school graduation rates, drug use, and homelessness, it is true to its state motto of “she flies with her own wings.” This is especially true when it comes to some of the legislation that helps make Oregon what it is. There is the 1967 Oregon Beach Bill which makes the entire coast and all its beaches owned by the public. Visit a gas station and you won’t have to leave the car as Oregon is one of the last states to have full service gasoline. And there is the 1971 first in the nation state bottle return bill, designed to help clean up the state’s highways and up recycling rates, this idea has spread to other states and has created its own little mini-economy here.
The bottle return bill is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it helps keep bottles and cans from beverages out of the trash and discarded on the side of the road. It also was a source of funding for many fundraisers I did as a kid and generated a little pocket money here and there. It is also a source of income of last resort for many people, creating a weird system where some containers have value, while others don’t. Live in the city and on trash day, you’ll see the cars and bikes roaming through the neighborhood, rummaging through residential trash bins or flipping over garbage cans in commercial areas in search of bottles. It can be an irritant, whether that means getting woke up in the middle of the night on trash day by people going through your bin, or dealing with the garbage tossed aside in their search for cans.
The bus driver also has to deal with the cans too, and because not everyone collecting cans has a car or a bicycle, they bring cans on the bus. It’s been a source of driver and passenger frustration for years. Big bags of cans take up large amounts of space. Throw in different people bringing bags of cans on board and someone in a mobility device or using a walker, and the front area of the bus can be a delicate dance around people who need to sit up there and a leaking Mt. Trashmore of cans leaving sticky residue on the floor or blocking the aisles.
While TriMet rules state that bags of can should not leak, it’s difficult to determine whether that bag is leaking before it enters the bus. When that bag leaks, it can make the whole bus sticky and stinky, smelling more like a dive bar that’s had too much beer spilled on the floor than a family friendly transportation option. Throw in a bunch of people, smells, and some stuffy air, and it can be nauseating. One time the stench was so bad, when another driver relieved me, he was convinced someone was drinking on the bus and started looking for the culprit. All he could find was a bag of empty cans.
Which brings us to Line 297-NW Yeon/OBRC. The Oregon Beverage Recycling Center set up a temporary bottle return site at its headquarters in NW Portland after its other bottle drop sites were overwhelmed by the closure of bottle return sites at local grocery stores. Lines stretched around for long distances at the Delta Park, Wood Village, King Road bottle drop sites. It was shocking seeing how long the lines were at Delta Park, families sitting for hours so they could make a little bit of extra cash. Throw in the hardship created by the coronavirus-caused economic meltdown, and the desperation has been hard to watch. To help out TriMet created Line 297, supposedly at the request of the governor’s office, to help people get to this new temporary site.
This new line fell to us extraboard drivers and was introduced with promises of security guards for the bus, extra protection for the driver, and a shift that involved overtime, a rarity these days at TriMet since service was cut back. I kept hoping I would get it, hearing from other drivers it wasn’t so bad, that barely anyone was using it and with the security guards to run crowd control, all you had to do was sit there and drive.
Well, let’s start off with the route itself. It’s an odd route, going from Rose Quarter Transit Center, through Old Town and then up to I-405 and US 30 to the bottle drop site, a quick turn around and then back to Rose Quarter. With only three stops, it has that fun express bus feel where the goal is to get there quickly and safely. It could have been even faster without the Old Town stop at NW Glisan and 3rd, but considering the large homeless population that lives in Old Town, it was probably for the best give people a boarding option there.
The turns on this route were easy, just with a lot of pedestrians to look out for with the left turn at Broadway from Glisan and then the right turn from NW Broadway to W Burnside. Then there is the turn from NW Yeon/US 30 onto the frontage road at the bottle drop. It’s a weird left turn to make with all that oncoming traffic doing 45+ miles an hour, but manageable. The right turn back onto NW Yeon will be familiar to anyone who has done that part of Line 15 before.
Breaks and layover area
Then there are the breaks. The whole round trip is only 36 minutes or so, leaving the driver with a solid 24–25 minute break after every trip. The breaks are definitely a winner with this trip, how can you argue with having almost a third of your day being breaks and layover time? Rose Quarter Transit Center is also a pretty decent break spot, with a break room with flush toilets, running water, a microwave, and a water fountain. Also the coffee shack there makes a decent cup of drip coffee and you get to watch the trains and buses come and go all day long. Can’t go wrong.
The route cuts through Northwest Portland, from Old Town up into the Industrial Area. You pass Blanchet House across from the first stop. When I was on the 297 on Wednesday, there were large crowds lined up outside for food. The encampments in Old Town have grown larger, with more people than usual wandering out into the street. Times are hard out there and if you want a front row seat to Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck desperation, hop on board. You also run by Powells and the old Brewery Block on Burnside, as well as the approaches to the Fremont Bridge on I-405, all in all not that bad of a run.
Well, you know the people running around town collecting cans, these are the people on this bus. Whether they need money for a drug problem, or to buy food for their kids, it’s a desperate sight. The customers were relaxed for the most part, but one of the security guards assigned to the bus caused more problems than he solved. He ranted and cursed through most of the trip, complained about the homeless, the cans, how no one was following the rules, and at one point how he wished “the city would burn to the ground.” I told him to go live somewhere else then.
I felt bad for the people returning cans. Some folks I dropped off in the morning didn’t get back on the bus until four hours later. The last three trips, folks would get off the bus with their cans only to get back on after seeing a line that stretched down the road, knowing they wouldn’t get to offload them in time. All that effort for nothing, it was heartbreaking.
The big problem with this run is it is a misplaced band-aid on the gaping sucking chest wound that is poverty right now in this city. The state knows that bottle drops are a lifeline to the poor so it instructs OBRC to open a temporary drop center to alleviate pressure and TriMet to come up with a temporary shuttle to ferry everyone. This is what this city and this state and this country have come to, that the best solution we have for poverty is to create a free shuttle bus so folks can stand in line for hours to return cans and bottles to a warehouse so they can get $10 or $50 dollars. People are starving, facing eviction, living on the street, lining up at food pantries for hours, lining up at places for free meals for hours, lining up to make a buck here or there, and this is the best we can do as a country? Go spend a few days collecting scrap and we’ll give you a free ride to go drop it off for cash so long as the line isn’t so long.
Sure I don’t mind being paid to drive the bus, but think about how much it costs to pay me, how much it cost to pay for those two security guards, how much the road supervisor cost per hour, the cost of fuel and maintenance on the bus, and how that cash could have gone toward housing someone or paying for a meal or two. Of course that money is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the need in this city, but we need to do something different.
I felt really bad for the people. It’s hard seeing hungry people, folks being yelled at by security guards, folks being told you can bring your cans on the bus, this bus, which is designed for you, was set up for you, but don’t block the aisles with the bags, don’t put the bags on the seats, pile them on the wheel wells, can you stack them over there, sorry we can’t take anymore riders because the bus is full, guess you need to wait another hour. Honestly the whole shuttle was absurd, and there I was at the wheel, witnessing the empire collapse around me, knowing how futile the whole enterprise felt, but hey I’m getting paid, and making overtime too, so just drive and don’t think too hard. Especially not about the virus or vectors that could be on those cans. And just do your best to ignore the stench of all those cans baking in the hot May sun on your bus. Crack the windows open and dream about someplace else. Just drive and be safe, that’s all you can do sometimes to not get too sad on the bus.
I’d rank this route a C -. Sure, the breaks were plentiful and long, but having to see everything — the long lines stretching out to the road, the families waiting in the hot sun, the woman who ran out of gas while waiting in line to return cans only to be berated by the security guard hired by OBRC at the site — it was hard to watch. The route made me sad in a way that the bus hadn’t in a while. Oregon may be an oddball of a state, but there is nothing odd about how we are treating the poor in our midst, it’s just cruel and shows a lack of empathy. I just wish there was more we could do for our fellow humans. If you wanna ride this bus, just make sure you do so before June 1, last day of service is May 31 so get on board quick so you can witness the whole shambolic tragedy.
This is a personal blog, the views expressed in this blog are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of TriMet