With passengers facing detours over 600 miles and bus companies in neighboring states facing financial losses, multiple parties have been scrambling to restore Montana bus service since last Friday when Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) inspectors shut down the Billings-based Rimrock Stages bus fleet. Limited service on I-90 is resuming tomorrow, and additional runs are likely to be reestablished next week, much sooner than many had expected thanks to a Missoula-based transportation consulting firm that volunteered to step in to help coordinate and expedite the process.
Jefferson Lines, a Minnesota-based company will begin running one round trip from Billings through Butte to Missoula starting on March 30th. Jefferson will also be extending its Glendive run from Fargo on into Billings. As early as next Friday, Salt Lake Express, based in Rexburg, Idaho, hopes to start two additional round trips between Billings and Missoula that Rimrock Stages has been operating. One of the trips will go through Helena.
The reopening of the I-90 route will reconnect the Montana link in the bus service network for the nation’s northern tier. Since the shutdown, a rider planning to travel between Spokane and Minneapolis would have been forced to detour through Salt Lake City and Denver. While this would be a minor inconvenience for a plane traveler, bus passengers faced greatly increased travel times. Moreover, riders in Montana communities with no alternative connections like Great Falls, Helena, and Bozeman were completely stranded.
The different players are looking at the logistics of reestablishing connections for Rimrock Stages’ other routes, including Great Falls-Helena-Butte, Whitefish-Kalispell-Missoula, and Billings-Dickinson-Bismark-Fargo. It appears that most, if not all, of Rimrock Stages’ intercity routes could be reestablished and Montana communities could experience no reduction in service frequency or coverage. The Whitefish-Kalispell-Missoula route will likely be the most difficult to reestablish.
Since last weekend, Lisa Ballard of Current Transportation Solutions has volunteered her time to act as a central point of contact and facilitator for the parties involved. Ballard’s Missoula-based transportation consulting company has worked closely with Rimrock Stages, gaining a detailed knowledge of the Montana bus service through development of a 2011 transit plan completed under contract with the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT). At Rimrock’s request, Ballard has provided Jefferson Lines and Salt Lake Express with a list of Rimrock’s bus drivers so that the new operators can choose to hire experienced Montana drivers who know the routes. Current Transportation Solutions has also created a temporary website with updates and information about the situation: https://mtndintercity.wordpress.com/
Ballard said that both MDT and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) are also working hard to seek solutions.
”I’ve been working in transit for a long time and I know firsthand that many riders depend on bus service and have no alternatives,” said Ballard. “In the last week I’ve heard a lot of stories about the hardship this shutdown is causing and that’s what motivates me to help.”