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Transit services needed in northern Montana

By Jerome Tharaud
Havre Daily News
On Thursday, Jeff Schroeder, 32, was filling in for the regular driver at the North Central Senior Citizens Center as he occasionally does, giving rides to people like Howard Dolph, 78, and Marge McLean, 83. By 2 p.m. he had already given rides to more than 30 seniors, he said.

"There's some days when we're completely booked and they just can't get rides. So it makes it tough on some of these people and their families," Schroeder said.

Transportation, whether across the Hi-Line's vast distances or just across town to get to work, is a scarce commodity for many in the area, old and young alike.

"Transportation is a huge issue, especially with younger people," said Darrel Hannum, director of employment and training at the District IV Human Resources Development Council. He said HRDC uses its agency vehicle to help with transportation, but that the service is only open to people in the employment and training program.

"We find people that are hitchhiking just to make it to work, and during the winter it's really difficult," Hannum said, adding that many of the people who need rides live outside of Havre in places like Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and the Fort Belknap Indian Community.

Some services exist now through local agencies like the Hill County Council on Aging, which operates the senior center, and HRDC, but other funding sources may mean expanded services in the future.

Havre Mayor Bob Rice said this week he has been trying for two years to set up a bus service that would connect Havre to Great Falls as well as towns to the east like Malta or Glasgow and would stop at every town in between. He said people have come to him and said they have doctor appointments in Great Falls and need a way to get there.

"There's just got to be some way that these people can get around," Rice said.

He said he's not trying to make it easier for people to leave Havre to shop, and that he thinks a bus service would bring shoppers from other places to Havre.

"This would be good for Havre too because people from Glasgow could come to Havre to shop, or people from Malta could come to Havre to shop. So it's kind of a win-win situation, the way I look at it," he said.

So far Rice's efforts have not met with success, but that may change soon. After meeting with officials from the Montana Department of Transportation this week, Rice said he has learned of possibilities for subsidies that could help Havre start up a service.

Dick Turner, a bureau chief in the Transportation Planning Division of the Montana Department of Transportation, said the best chance for Havre to set up its own transit service is with a grant from the Federal Transit Administration specifically for rural public transportation. The program awards money for operations costs and capital assistance like computers or a shuttle bus.

The process is competitive, and a local match is required, Turner said. The application deadline this year is Feb. 2.

The program already supports transit programs in about 10 other towns in Montana, including Browning and Glasgow, Turner said.

Turner said the service has generally been used to transport people within towns. But there is another federal funding program that could help subsidize a commercial bus line to Havre.

Rimrock Trailways used to have a line connecting Great Falls and Havre several years ago, Turner said, but it was not financially viable. Federal funding could make that kind of route more viable, he said.

Lindy Brekke, co-chair of the transportation team for the North Central Montana Community Ventures Project and a training consultant at Havre Job Service, said the biggest transportation need is helping people get to work.

"A lot of folks' cars are older, or they might have some auto repairs, so it's not running at the moment. If those individuals can't get to work because their car won't start, they'll lose their job," Brekke said. Transportation, she said, is a significant part of the plan prepared by the Community Ventures Project that earned a $12 million grant from the Northwest Area Foundation in December for an 11-county region in north-central Montana.

Evelyn Havskjold, director of the Hill County Council on Aging, is applying for a new TransADE grant, available for the first time this year. The state grant is paid for by a 25-cent fee on each license plate registration.

If the Council on Aging is awarded the grant in 2005, it could use the money to expand the number of trips it provides to Great Falls and also offer taxi vouchers for the elderly and handicapped when a driver isn't on duty.