The number of passengers riding North Central Montana Transit system in its first year of operations has surpassed expectations by leaps and bounds.
That's the comment Jim Lyons, the system's director made at the advisory committee's meeting Tuesday.
Director Jim Lyons said the projections for annual passengers when the system was being planned was for 1,200 a year up to 4,000 a year. From Aug. 24, 2009, to Aug. 24 this year, the system saw 18,136 rides.
“If you even take that on the high side, (it's like) we're going into our fifth year of operations. On the low side, basically our 18th year of operations,” he said. “Keeping pace with the growth was a challenge, but everything went very, very well,” he said.
The next challenge will be finding funding to maintain the level of service, he and Barb Stiffarm, the director of the anti-poverty group Opportunity Link Inc., said during the meeting.
Stiffarm said the system needs to continue and hopefully expand its partnerships with local groups in finding funding,
“If we don’t get the partnerships we’re talking about, we won’t be talking about expanding, we’ll be talking about reducing services,” she said.
Opportunity Link spearheaded the creation of the bus system, which provides transportation Monday through Friday back and forth between Fort Belknap and Havre — with stops in Harlem and Chinook — and Box Elder and Havre — with stops in Laredo. The buses also provide routes throughout Havre and the system makes runs to Great Falls on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Initial funding for the system was a $75,000 startup grant from the Montana Department of Transportation and $227,000 to purchase buses — one of which is in operation — through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The original plan was to have $30,000 put up by each of seven governments and organizations to help the initial funding of the system.
Several groups did come through with some contributions. Opportunity Link and Montana State University-Northern each contributed $30,000, while Havre and Hill County each contributed $15,000.
The Rocky Boy’s and Fort Belknap Indian reservations also contributed with in-kind services.
Lyons said this morning that the transit system has received letters of support from each of those organizations, as well as Blaine County, which did not make a contribution last year.
He said he hopes the transit system will receive contributions from those groups, and he will be approaching them to see what the system can expect, whether in cash or in-kind services.
Stiffarm said she and her staff are continually looking for other revenue sources as well.
“We’re trying to make the system self-sustaining,” Stiffarm said.
Lyons listed some of the work that is being done in that area including chartering the system’s buses — it worked with Havre Public Schools in providing transportation for the members of the Montana Tavern Association while they were in Havre for their annual meeting and again provided transportation for the Southern Alberta Pipe Band while members were in town for Festival Days — and leasing sign space outside and inside the buses.
The system is providing enormous benefits not only to its riders, but to the communities and businesses and institutions within them, he said.
Stiffarm said many of the riders — 80 percent of those going to Great Falls — are using the system to get to medical appointments. Having the health care institutions which riders are going to contribute is one area she wants to explore, she said.
Many other riders use the system to get to school or to work. Stiffarm said that many are riding the bus in an interest to reduce emissions or just watching their pocket book and reducing wear and tear on their vehicles.
About 30 percent of the riders use the system because they can’t afford to travel any other way, she said.
She and Lyons said another benefit has been reducing the amount of traffic on U.S. Highway 2 east of Havre with the construction going on there.