Constant planning keeps bus system rolling

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An Eagle Transit bus departs from The Summit on Friday morning, Jan. 5, in Kalispell. Transportation planning efforts underway are looking at ways to improve service and create a more efficient transit system in Flathead County. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Providing public transportation in a rural setting like the Flathead Valley is a complicated and challenging endeavor that’s a continuous work in progress.

To keep the wheels on the bus turning in all the right directions takes planning — lots of planning. That’s why the Flathead County Agency on Aging, which oversees the Eagle Transit bus system, is involved in two transportation planning processes at the moment.

The annual transportation coordination plan, part of the agency’s application for state and federal funding to run the transit program, is being finalized for approval next month. Eagle Transit’s Transportation Advisory Committee, which has a big role in developing the annual plan, is poised to vote on the fiscal year 2019 plan on Feb. 1. That committee of representatives of local businesses, organizations and stakeholder groups, along with community members and transit riders, then delivers the annual plan to the county commissioners for a vote. After that, the plan is submitted to the Montana Department of Transportation by March.

“It’s where we have an opportunity to say what’s happening in terms of transportation in Flathead County, our challenges, ideas, what public and stakeholders want to see” said Lisa Sheppard, director of Flathead County Agency on Aging. “It’s a picture of what we’re doing and a statement of what we’re planning.”

A bigger-picture plan about public transportation in the Flathead is the county’s five-year transportation development plan, which is at the end of its current cycle in 2018. So it’s time to start that more comprehensive planning process, too.

“Because in our annual plan we’re talking about where we want to be, it makes sense to discuss what we’re thinking long-term,” Sheppard said.

The county used an outside consultant for the last five-year plan, and went through the request-for-proposal process for the upcoming plan. When the proposals didn’t provide “exactly what we were looking for,” the planning group chose instead to do much of the work in-house, with a subcommittee accompanied by strategic use of outside consultants, Sheppard said.

The challenge always is to find ways to stretch resources and provide services in more creative and efficient ways.

Eagle Transit provides public transportation within the county, including city bus service in Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, commuter service between Kalispell and the other two incorporated cities, and transportation to the SPARKS after-school program at the Summit in Kalispell. All of the transit vehicles are handicap-accessible.

It’s a Monday through Friday service in which routes and hours vary, and service isn’t available on weekends or holidays.

Eagle Transit also offers paratransit Dial-A-Ride services for passengers with disabilities or other conditions that make it difficult to use the regular city bus service. Dial-A-Ride is a door-to-door, appointment-based, shared-ride service.

Through a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service and state of Montana, Eagle Transit also provides free shuttle services during the summer season at Glacier National Park.

Ridership for the fixed-route service has dropped off some in recent years. During fiscal year 2017, a total of 85,305 passengers used Eagle Transit. That compares to 91,196 passengers the previous year.

Some of the decrease can be attributed to a better local economy, Sheppard said. During the recession a few years ago, people tuned into public transportation because of higher gas prices and tighter finances. But there are other factors, such as the way Eagle Transit configures its services, that may make people less interested in riding, she added.

Last year the on-time performance of transit vehicles struggled; that makes riders react by not choosing to use Eagle Transit.

“When we developed our schedules there was a lot less traffic; then we added Evergreen and created more chances for delay,” Sheppard said. “Our transportation manager Dale Novak made some pretty significant changes to the Kalispell city route, in particular. Once he did that — he rerouted and added stops — we were able to out our route back on time.”

Novak also is looking at ways to reconfigure the Kalispell route to have shorter runs, so people aren’t on the bus as long, perhaps with a centralized transfer point, she said.

Paralleling the decrease in fixed-route use is an upswing in the demand for paratransit service, Sheppard said, due largely to the Flathead’s aging population.

Paratransit is a required service, so it behooves planners to figure out “how can we get more creative,” she said.

Eagle Transit is funded through a combination of federal and state funds, a voted county mill, contracts, advertising revenue, fares, donations and contributions from area cities. Federal transit money makes up about 55 percent of the total annual budget, which for fiscal year 2018 is projected at $1.427 million in revenue and $1.422 million in expenditures.

“When we lose ridership it affects our funding formula,” Sheppard pointed out, adding that transit fares make up a fairly small part of the annual budget, bringing in some $40,000 to $45,000 a year.

Both the annual and five-year planning processes strive for public involvement. To that end, a transit planning public meeting was held in early December that drew an assortment of 25 people representing various organizations and community groups.

An annual survey was sent to 123 businesses and organizations to get feedback about community transit needs.

“When we went through our priorities list, we had done work on probably 90 percent of the things on the list,” Sheppard said. “It made it feel like we’re heading in the right direction.”

And there’s still time for the community to provide public comments on transit issues. Call Eagle Transit Manager Dale Novak at 758-2427, and leave a message with input or suggestions about how service might be improved.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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