Ben Franklin Transit seeks grant to get buses to Columbia Basin College in Pasco

Columbia Basin College students could have three new buses taking them to school in a couple of years if Ben Franklin Transit succeeds in getting a federal grant.

The Tri-City transit agency has received population-based money from the federal government in recent years, but the Federal Transit Administration recently made $110 million in discretionary money nationwide available.

Kathy McMullen, Ben Franklin Transit's service development manager who wrote the grant request, said the agency is applying for about $2.2 million. "It's very competitive," she said.

The proposed routes would restore service to some areas that lost routes because of 2011 budget cuts and add new locations including Southridge High School in Kennewick and the Tierra Vida housing development in east Pasco, McMullen said.

The number of CBC students riding buses has exploded since Ben Franklin Transit brought buses directly onto the Pasco campus two years ago.

Since then, student ridership has gone from a few thousand to 10,000 to 19,000 a month, depending on the time of year.

"It's one of the most successful things Ben Franklin Transit has done in terms of increasing ridership," said Bill Saraceno, the school's vice president of administration.

Ben Franklin Transit doesn't have specific routes mapped out, but would like for one to connect from the Three Rivers Transit Center in Kennewick to the Tri-Tech Skills Center, then cross the river to the 22nd Avenue Transit Center in Pasco, then to CBC.

Another route would start at Trios Health in south Kennewick, go to Southridge High, then to the 22nd Street Transit Center and CBC.

The third would stay in Pasco, starting in east Pasco, stop at the Amtrak station, go to the 22nd Avenue Transit Center and then the college, she said.

The grant would pay for three new buses and improvements to the transit centers, but McMullen said Ben Franklin Transit will have to show it can pay to operate the routes for 10 years.

The frequency of the routes, how much they would cost to run and whether new employees would be needed is still not known, she said.

"We would balance any new service with the income we're receiving," she said. "It just depends on how many people are riding and how much money we've got."

The agency expects to hear by the end of the year if it will receive a grant.

If successful, it will take another year-and-a-half to two years to order and receive the buses.

"It's still quite a ways out," McMullen said.

Ben Franklin Transit will continue to look for revenue for the routes even if this money doesn't come through, she said.

Saraceno said students previously had to cross 20th Avenue or Argent Road to get from the bus to campus.

Now, students can wait at shelters on CBC's traffic circle.

Full-time students also are given bus passes by the college as part of registration.

The program is good for the college and the environment, Saraceno said.

"It's really convenient for our students, it's safer for our students and it's saving money by not having to build new parking lots," he said. CBC predicts an enrollment of about 5,200 students when fall classes begin Sept. 22.

President Rich Cummins said CBC could still use more buses coming to the campus.

"We're doing our best to get the students here, while getting more vehicles off the road," he said.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom