Community Dividend

Transportation partnership offers economic hope in north central Montana

For many residents of Montana's Hi-Line region, an innovative transit partnership provides the means to pursue an education, commute to work, or access important services.

Day Soriano
Sue Woodrow - Community Development Senior Project Director

Published January 1, 2011  |  January 2011 issue

Jacob Ereaux is a regular passenger of the North Central Montana Transit (NCMT) bus service. He travels 81 miles every morning from the rural Fort Belknap Indian Reservation to attend classes at Montana State University-Northern (MSU-Northern) in the micropolitan hub of Havre.1/ Violet Billy lives on the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation without a car or other means of transportation. She commutes 15 miles to her job in Havre by taking the NCMT bus daily. For Jacob, Violet, and many others in north central Montana, the NCMT bus service, launched in August 2009, provides the means to pursue an education, commute to work, visit family members, or access important services.

A partnership forms

North central Montana is a vast, sparsely populated region of 31,000 square miles where travel by car on two-lane highways is often the only means of transportation. Many counties in this remote corner of the Great Plains have a density of two or fewer persons per square mile. People in the region are more likely to be poor than the average Montanan. For example, poverty rates in Blaine and Hill counties, at the geographic center of the region, are 24 percent and 18.2 percent, respectively, compared to a statewide rate of 14.1 percent.2/ Job opportunities can be scarce, particularly within the region's Native communities. On the Rocky Boy's and Fort Belknap reservations, unemployment rates approach 70 percent.3/

Opportunity Link, a regional nonprofit agency whose mission is to pursue solutions to combat persistent poverty, has identified transportation as an important means of spurring revitalization of the region. For most people in the area, traveling long distances is necessary to get to work, attend college classes and medical appointments, shop for groceries, and access other services and amenities. Driving those distances is out of the question for many residents because the costs of vehicle payments, insurance, maintenance, and fuel are prohibitive. Thus, the need for affordable transportation alternatives is great. But funding public transit services can be challenging. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Transit Administration (FTA), on average, fare revenues account for only 40 percent of transit system operating costs, so most public transit systems in the U.S. rely on financial assistance from federal, state, and local governments as well as private sector sources.4/ In remote regions such as north central Montana, transit systems can present an even greater funding challenge because the sparse and relatively poor population provides a small tax base while the great distances between destinations result in high per capita operating costs.

Recognizing the need and challenge, Opportunity Link sought assistance from the Western Transportation Institute5/ in 2007 to conduct an assessment of transportation needs for low-income residents of north central Montana and to lead an effort to determine effective options. Recognizing that community input would be crucial for any effort to succeed, Opportunity Link also identified and convened stakeholders from the region, and a collaboration was launched. Partners included elected officials; major employers; state, county, municipal, and tribal governments; tribal and state post-secondary education institutions; health care providers; and commercial and social services. The Northwest Area Foundation funded a planning process that involved many community meetings and led to the establishment of a permanent advisory committee of stakeholders. Committee members developed a coordination plan for the creation of NCMT, and they continue to oversee the service's operations. Through the Montana Department of Transportation, the NCMT partnership secured operational funding from the FTA, and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds were awarded to purchase vehicles. Matching funds were provided by Hill and Blaine counties, the Fort Belknap Indian Community at Fort Belknap Reservation, the Chippewa Cree Tribe at Rocky Boy's Reservation, and MSU-Northern. These NCMT partners continue to provide funding and other support.

Realizing the benefits

Today, NCMT offers daily fixed-route bus service free of charge to riders traveling between Havre, the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy's reservations, and numerous isolated small towns in between. Routes offer shuttle-to-bus connections at tribal "hub" communities, and a twice-weekly shuttle service runs between Fort Belknap and Great Falls, a distance of more than 100 miles. Routes also include a daily round-trip service between Havre and Fort Belknap that accommodates 24 Havre residents working in Fort Belknap.

NCMT's three intercity routes cover more than 600 miles a day, totaling more than 200,000 miles a year. NCMT ridership, originally projected at 250 rides a month, currently averages 1,600 rides a month. By its first anniversary in August 2010, NCMT had provided 18,136 rides, far exceeding original expectations of 2,000 to 4,000 rides a year. Regular riders include elderly and disabled people, nondrivers, employed commuters, tribal college and university students, medical patients, shoppers, and recreational travelers.

Institutions and individuals in the region are realizing the benefits. "Public transportation is vital to any city, any area," said MSU-Northern Chancellor Frank Trocki during the transit launch in 2009, noting that the service makes it easier for students to get to class. Riders on the Havre-Fort Belknap route say that riding the bus will save each of them thousands of dollars annually that would otherwise be spent on gas and vehicle maintenance.

"Living in rural Montana isn't cheap, especially with the debt I accumulated during my education," says Taylor Dotson, a math instructor at Fort Belknap College. "Not only do I save around a hundred dollars a week taking the bus, but I get to know other people in the community whom I might not otherwise have met." Dotson adds, "The NCMT bus has definitely improved the quality of my life."

The benefits of the NCMT partnership extend to agricultural producers and job seekers in the region. Since January 2010, NCMT has used 5 to 20 percent biodiesel blends in its fleet. The biodiesel is made by MSU-Northern's Bio-Energy Center from oil seeds purchased from local growers and pressed by local processors. And when it came time to replace NCMT's old, energy-inefficient bus garage, Opportunity Link used the setting as a training site for green construction and renovation. Nine trainees, mostly carpentry students from the area's tribal colleges, completed the course and gained important job skills. The organization now has an energy-efficient, solar-powered garage and construction training center.

NCMT is one of four new transit systems Opportunity Link has helped establish in the Hi-Line region of Montana.6/ The others are Fort Belknap Transit, serving the Fort Belknap Reservation; Rocky Boy's Transit, serving the Rocky Boy's Reservation; and Northern Transit Interlocal, serving Toole, Pondera, and Teton counties, which include parts of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Combined, the four systems cover more than half of north central Montana.

"We've identified accessible regional transportation as an effective means to empower and grow our local economies," says Barbara Stiffarm, executive director of Opportunity Link. The partnerships that have been fostered to develop and fund the transit service have been crucial. According to Jim Lyons, NCMT director, the overarching goal is to build a transit system coalition across Montana's Hi-Line that will expand the member partners' geographic and ridership reach. NCMT is exploring ideas to achieve financial sustainability within two to three years, including seeking additional funding sources to supplement federal and state subsidies and introducing modest fares for certain routes.

A good problem to have

Opportunity Link's leadership in coordinating multijurisdictional planning among diverse partners to establish the transit services has not gone unnoticed. The organization was recognized by two 2010 FTA Transportation Planning Excellence Awards, one in Planning Leadership and another in Tribal Transportation Planning. Opportunity Link and NCMT also received a commendation for innovation in public transportation from the International Association of Public Transport, based in Brussels, Belgium, and north central Montana has been selected by Easter Seals Project ACTION as one of 12 regions in the U.S. to participate in the 2010 Mobility Planning Services: Accessible Transportation Coalitions Initiative.

"We never imagined this could happen when we first started," says NCMT's Jim Lyons. He adds, "We anticipate that demand will increase, and we are always preparing for it. That's a good problem to have." A good problem indeed, as NCMT is improving lives in notable ways.

"Taking the bus means that I don't have to hitch a ride to work anymore," says Violet Billy. "If not for the bus, I would probably be unemployed and on welfare."

Day Soriano is the development director for Opportunity Link.

A mission to reduce poverty

Established in 2004 in partnership with the Northwest Area Foundation, Opportunity Link is a nonprofit organization that pursues long-term solutions and promotes public-private sector collaborations for community-based poverty reduction projects in 11 rural counties and three Indian reservations in north central Montana. For more information, visit www.ncmtransit.org and www.opportunitylinkmt.org, or contact Opportunity Link Executive Director Barbara Stiffarm at bstiffarm@opportunitylinkmt.org or North Central Montana Transit Director Jim Lyons at jlyons@ncmtransit.org, or call 406-265-3699.


1/ The U.S. Office of Management and Budget created a Micropolitan Statistical Area (μSA) designation in 2003 to refer to a geographic area containing an urban core with a population of 10,000 to 49,999. The Havre area is one of 577 μSAs in the U.S.

2/ U.S. Census Bureau State & County QuickFacts, 2008.

3/ U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, 2005.

4/ See www.fta.dot.gov/publications/reports/other_reports/publications_134.html.

5/ The Western Transportation Institute is a research center of Montana State University's College of Engineering.

6/ "Hi-Line" refers to the area in northern Montana that straddles U.S. Highway 2 between the Rocky Montains and the North Dakota state line.

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