A report by a nonpartisan research group says that a priority for the federal government — especially with the reauthorization of its transportation act in the work — should be on ensuring rural parts of the country have access to adequate transportation
Opportunity Link Inc., the anti-poverty organization that spearheaded the creation of the North Central Montana Transit bus system, cited the Rural Policy Research Institute report that was released this week, saying the report shows rural areas such as the Hi-Line require transportation options to maintain strong economies and quality of life.
“Transportation benefits not only the individual riders but also the economy of our rural towns, ” said Frank De Priest, Blaine County commissioner and member of the board of the transit system. “It reduces isolation and increases our quality of life. Transportation is vital to any city but especially to rural communities like ours.”
The report says that as the federal transportation program comes up for reauthorization, federal policy should support local planning and encourage innovation that will improve the quality of life in rural areas. The report also cautions against trying to apply one-size-fits all approaches to rural improvements, and says resources should be shifted to address specific needs in particular areas.
It also urges placing less emphasis on large-scale projects, in general, and instead focusing on local upgrades with specific desired outcomes.
The report talks about various ways to improve transportation, ranging from improved sidewalks and lighting to increased public transit to better freight transportation systems.
The Opportunity Link statement says that the report shows that eroding access to transportation in rural areas, and the changing demographics of those areas, proves the need for investment.
“Nationally, more than 1.6 million rural households do not have access to a car; 38 percent of rural residents live in areas where public transportation services do not exist, ” the statement says. “People with low-incomes, the elderly, and those living with disabilities in rural communities need transportation options that allow them to access job and educational opportunities, medical facilities, and normal day-to-day interaction with friends and family.”
The North Central Montana Transit system has been focused lately on the federal reauthorization, and the potential loss of funding it could see if public transit funding is cut.
Representatives of the system and its board said the work they have done shows precisely the success of the tactics the institute’s report suggests.
“These are the strategies that have worked for us, ” said Barbara Stiffarm, executive director of Opportunity Link. “Transportation has been one of our key strategies for growing our regional economy.
“By planning together we were able to provide smaller communities daily long-distance bus services for everyone to have access to jobs and health centers, ” Stiffarm said. “By working regionally, we can be more efficient in using our transportation dollars.
“Our experience reflects the findings of the RUPRI report that solutions for addressing needs of rural areas should be regional, ” she added.
The transit system has been using innovative approaches including heavily melding programs of different groups to improve service. That includes running its fleet of buses on a blend of biodiesel produced at Montana State University-Northern, both reducing its expenses while helping Northern’s Bio-Energy Center in its tests of the locally produced alternative fuel.
That has spun off to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway testing locally produced biodiesel in a locomotive in its Havre railyard, a project teaming up Northern, BNSF, Opportunity Link and Earl Fisher Biofuels of Chester.
The transit system also has tied in with other programs, including transporting many students participating in the YouthBuild program hosted at Northern.
The system has far surpassed all expectations. While in the planning stages, researchers estimated the transit system would have about 200 to 350 passengers a month.
After the system started operation in August 2009, the actual numbers skyrocketed, with an average of 1,650 a month.
The system regularly transports people to work, shopping, medical appointments and school, and just for visits in its trips to and from Havre, Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy, as well as twice-a-week trips to Great Falls, with stops at points in between destinations and within Havre.
“By linking regional transit services we have been able to try strategies that reflect our strengths as well as our needs, ” transit system Director Jim Lyons said. “It is good for business and good for communities. Elderly and handicapped residents enjoy more independence.
“The bottom line is rural residents along (U. S. highways) 2 and 87 now have better access to jobs, schooling, medical care, shopping in town, ” Lyons added.
The RUPRI report is available online at www.rupri.org or www.opportunitylinkmt.org/downloads.php.