With future federal funding uncertain, local, state and federal officials met in Havre Wednesday to discuss the future of the local busing service.
Jim Lyons, director of North Central Montana Transit, said no one knows what will come out of the next federal transportation authorization bill, including amounts for funding public transportation systems. Local agencies and governments need to start working together and planning how to sustain the bus service.
“Let’s be ahead of the curve,” he said at the close of Wednesday’s meeting.
The meeting, hosted at Bear Paw Development Corp., included presentations by Paul Tuss, Bear Paw's executive director; Erik Amundson, Montana field director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and Patrick Sanders, transportation coordinator for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
One segment of the presentation included representatives of local agencies — 12 agency representatives attended the meeting — giving examples of how the bus service had helped their clients and their agencies.
The representatives told the group how the free busing service had reduced their expenses, as well as freeing up money for local residents. That reduction in expenses has helped many in the transit system’s area of operation pay their bills, pay rent and utilities, pay expenses such as child care, and even helped pay for improvements to local homes.
Collaboration and cooperation
Barb Stiffarm, director of Opportunity Link Inc., said the meeting Wednesday was intended to start planning strategies for ways to deal with future funding needs.
She said one way will be the agencies at Wednesday’s meeting, as well as community members, accompanying Opportunity Link when it approaches local governments to ask for support.
Having agency directors and community members telling the government officials how the bus system has helped will help in requesting assistance, Stiffarm said.
“That’s a powerful story,” she said. “That does make a difference.”
Sanders agreed. Showing the benefits to the community, to businesses and organizations as well as community members, is a powerful tool. The fact that people now are keeping appointments in the Havre area that they could not before is a success story, he said.
He said collaboration and cooperation is a key to sustainability — reducing costs and pooling resources can help continue or even expand services.
Tuss said the cooperation already seems to be in place. The next step is finding ways utilizing that cooperation to sustain the operations.
“It seems to me we’re hitting on all cylinders,” he said.
‘Closer than you think’
The transit system started operating in August 2009, after several years of planning and development.
The bus runs between Havre and the Fort Belknap Agency and Havre and Box Elder, making stops at communities in between the end points and making runs at stops throughout Havre several times a day. It also makes trips to and from Great Falls on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Opportunity Link Inc., the anti-poverty organization housed in Havre, spearheaded the drive, citing lack of available transportation hurting people’s ability to get to work, to school, to medical appointments and other needs including shopping.
The system received $75,000 through the Montana Department of Transportation for startup costs in 2009, and was awarded $227,000 through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to purchase buses.
The system has far exceeded expectations. The studies done to find the feasibility of running a bus system in the area estimated it would transport 200 to 350 people a month. It actually averaged that many a week.
In its first five weeks, the North Central Montana Transit system transported 1,035 passengers. In its first year, from Aug. 24, 2009, to Aug. 24 of this year, the system transported 18,100 passengers.
Federal funding unknown
A major question discussed at Wednesday’s meeting was the future of outside funding. An increased focus by the federal government on providing public transportation has led to an explosion of transit systems in Montana, but whether that funding will continue is unknown.
The federal transportation authorization act, which includes funding for public transportation, expired the end of last year. The government has been extending the previous authorization, and is expected to act on its reauthorization next year.
Sanders said the number of transit systems in Montana have exploded in the last few years. In 2005, 12 public transit systems were operating in the state. By this year, that had grown to more than 40.
Part of that is due to expanded federal funding. In Montana, that has grown from $1.8 million in 2006 to $7.8 million this year, he said.
“If that funding goes down, that’s gong to affect a lot of systems,” he said.
Sanders said the amount it would impact systems is unknown, but it could lead to fewer routes, fewer vehicles and shorter hours of operation — at a time when most system are trying to find ways to add routes and expand their hours.
Sanders said his job at the Department of Public Health and Human Safety is to find ways to coordinate transportation related to his agency’s work with other state agencies and transportation providers, such as North Central Montana Transit.
That can lead to significant savings, with agencies and organizations pooling resources, he said.
In Butte, he said, a number of agencies and transportation providers have pooled together to work as a unit, including in bidding out work. That can lead to significant savings, Sanders said. An example was reducing the cost of tires from $190 each to $105 each through the pooled bidding.
He said another cost-saving feature could be on insurance — by pooling all vehicles and drivers together, the cost of insurance can be cut significantly.
He added that his agency, which has helped put on two statewide summits on the issue, the last held Dec. 2 and another planned for early next year, also is working on helping agencies and transportation organizations find more funding. Numerous federal programs can provide funding — with some usable to provide matching funds required by other sources — and he is working on putting together a guide or booklet to help people navigate the numerous funding sources.
He said he also is working with various agencies and organizations to find ways around roadblocks to providing funding for the transportation services.
Meeting planned for January
The group agreed that Wednesday’s meeting was a successful first step in planning ways to sustain the system.
They agreed to set another meeting, in early to mid-January, to continue to work on the issue, including planning presentations to local governments in requests for assistance.
On the Net: Visit North Central Montana Transit at: www.ncmtransit.org