Driving Change for Public Transit in the Flathead

A 2014 Cornell University study found that 12 percent of the Montana working class is disabled

Every morning begins the same: Drivers get in their car, grab a coffee and head to work. Little thought goes into how one gets there; drivers simply get in a vehicle and go. For the disabled worker who cannot drive, navigating the commute to work can be stressful, especially in rural Montana. This commuting challenge comes at a time when Montana has more disabled workers than ever before.

A 2014 Cornell University study found that 12 percent of the Montana “working class” is disabled, up 1.2 percent from 2011. As the number of disabled individuals increases, so does the need for more disability-based and accessible transportation services.

Having a disability is not just a “weekday” challenge. Nor is it “an old people thing.” On the contrary, many disabled Montanans are young, college-educated individuals who want to make a difference and contribute to Montana’s growing economy. It is estimated that 14.3 percent of Montana’s working-age people with a Bachelor’s degree or higher are disabled, according to Cornell’s study. That number is pivotal when considering that it is comprised of individuals eager to make an impact, help improve the quality of life and attract a younger workforce to Montana.

In recent years, Montana has taken strides to assist the disabled. Organizations such as Eagle Transit, which provides the Flathead Valley with public transportation in places such as Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, serves thousands of Montanans every year. There are also several organizations, including Disability Rights Montana, that advocate for the disabled community daily and work with businesses to ensure they are disability-accessible.

While services such as Eagle Transit have made advancements in serving disabled individuals and/or those who cannot drive, there is still opportunity for growth. For instance, most buses headed to Kalispell from Columbia Falls run only three times a day. Nothing runs on the weekend. For those who cannot drive or are hampered with disabilities, that schedule can prove challenging.

Fortunately, things are on the uptick. In August 2016, the Montana Department of Transportation announced it would provide nearly $2 million to help improve transit services across western and northwestern Montana, a clear indicator that things will continue to improve. Also, thanks to cutting-edge ride-share services such as Uber coming to Montana, getting around Montana’s rural communities has never been easier. However, in order to ensure that public transportation continues to expand and grow in the Flathead, we need to come together as a community, much like Missoula did.

In 2015, a group of community partners organized to fund a three-year, zero-fare project on Missoula’s Mountain Line. The partners included government, county and public and private sector organizations such as the University of Montana, city of Missoula, county of Missoula, Missoula’s St. Patrick Hospital and Missoula County Public Schools.

The partnership was a smashing success. Not only do passengers now ride free, but Missoula’s Mountain Line saw a 38 percent increase in ridership, decreased wait times, cleaner air and a sense of community pride. The partnership is also an economic win, according to the agency’s website. Mountain Line’s zero-fare public transit allows the agency to save on a variety of administration costs, including fare boxes (which cost $13,000 each), the acquisition, production and distribution of passes and transfers, and the collecting, counting, and managing of fares. All of these cost reductions mean less money owed by taxpayers – something that would not be possible without the community’s involvement.

By contrast, much of the funding needed to operate Eagle Transit currently comes from federal entities or advertising.

It seems it might be helpful, as in Missoula, if the Flathead Valley’s community organizations partnered to make public transportation advancements. Disabled people in the farthest corners of the valley would have services available on weekends and enjoy a greater sense of independence. Better, more flexible schedules would also give the disabled workforce the ability to contribute through substantial, quality careers; they would not be limited by distance or reduced bus schedules. The community could rest easy, too, knowing that dollars were being reinvested locally to the benefit of hundreds, who in turn are better able to contribute to the community.

No one expects 24/7, around-the-clock transportation in the Flathead. Nor should it be up to one person or organization to initiate change. Instead, change should come from all us collectively, disabled or not. By coming together as a community, we can help not only the disabled, but those without a reliable car, those wishing to reduce their carbon footprint, and those looking for more access to better employment.

Together, we can drive change.

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