A Ride through Walla Walla

The Valley Transit bus system is sort of like Walla Walla; it’s kind of quirky, a little on the slow side but definitely worth spending the time to get to know. As a Whittie who loves to bike, I’ve rarely found myself utilizing the little red, trolley-like buses that pass behind the science building every 45 minutes.

After participating in the campaign to help ensure that bus route 9 stays until at least November, I figured I’d better go for a celebratory spin.

The campaign for Valley Transit, a group of dedicated community members, collected more than 2,000 signatures in support of a ballot measure for a .03 percent sales tax increase. Sounds reasonable, right?

Think again; this is Walla Walla, not Seattle.

Despite the diminutive nature of the tax increase, a few members of the Valley Transit Board protested over raising taxes amid a recession and potentially hurting the Walla Walla economy even further.

The protests were quickly quieted by the remark of fellow board member Gregg Loney that “no one is going to drive to Pasco to save three dollars on a thousand dollar purchase.” As another board member, City Councilwoman Barbara Clarkpointed out, Walla Walla can’t afford not to have the Valley Transit taking kids to school, adults to their jobs and customers to stores.

Perhaps the best part of the meeting was when board member Greg Tompkins admitted that he hadn’t taken the bus until a couple of days before the meeting. He told the group of shocked community members that he and his wife both had cars, so why would they ever need to ride the bus? Evidently, being a board member wasn’t reason enough.

The hypocrisy of a Valley Transit board member having never taken the bus made me determined to ride that little red bus as far as it could go, which, I discovered, is actually pretty far.

Convincing a friend to come on a Valley Transit adventure, I eagerly combed the Valley Transit Web site for fun places to visit. The astoundingly bright green and redValleyTransit.com appeared just as excited to see me as I was to see it. Promises of cheap groceries, abundant liquor and Walla Walla’s only shopping mall made the 75 cent fare seem like the world’s best bargain. But first—I had to read Bus Basics.

After learning how to “flagstop” the bus, essentially making the bus stop for me (something I’d always dreamed of), I decided to get down to business and look at the routes. I soon found that “flagstopping” isn’t the only quirky part of Valley Transit: the whole bus system is based on circular routes.

Whereas on most bus systems you cross the street to catch the bus going the other way, on Valley Transit you catch it in the same place you started and go the whole route until you get where you want to go. Accustomed to public transit in Washington D.C. where riders would get on their Blackberries and call their senators if the bus was a couple of minutes late, the slow-pace of Valley Transit seemed refreshing.

After waiting a few minutes at the corner of Penrose and Isaacs, we saw the cheerful red bus approach.  Forking over a few quarters, we found ourselves in the company of elderly gentlemen, two punk teenagers and a pair of chubby red-headed grade-schoolers.

It soon became apparent that the red-headed kids were simply on the bus for the pure joy of riding. They pestered the driver, asking him how many times the bus was going to go around the loop.

Before we had truly been able to take in the Valley Transit experience, we found ourselves on Ninth Street. I pulled the handle, requesting a stop. Instead of pulling over at the next bus stop, the driver yelled back “where are you trying to go?”  Giddy with my newfound power to stop the bus wherever I wanted, I told him we were trying to go to Super 1 and Grocery Outlet, the two cheapest grocery stores in Walla Walla. I didn’t tell him we also wanted to hit up the liquor store—he looked a bit too much like my grandfather.

He pulled straight up to the curb, dropping us off directly in front and told us he’d be back to pick us up in 45 minutes. Feeling more like my mom had dropped me off at soccer practice than like I’d been dropped off by a bus driver, I headed off to do some shopping. Sure enough, he came back just as soon as we had finished, remembering our faces and asking us if our trip had been successful.

We smiled and sat back as he took us through the rest of the loop, driving past the Blue Mountain Mall, Home Depot and Wal-Mart—all the major Walla Walla landmarks.

Arriving back at Whitman, we waived goodbye to our new friends and set off to enjoy our produce.