Every weekday morning, before most people have even stirred out of bed, a small fleet of buses hits the roads. The buses, owned and operated by Flathead County’s Eagle Transit, connect Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Kalispell on nine different routes.
Ridership on Eagle Transit, which is under the umbrella of the county’s Agency on Aging, has increased 15 percent since 2011. The increases come as more Americans are choosing to use public transit. According to a recent report from the American Public Transit Association, Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation in 2013, the highest annual ridership number in nearly 60 years. Since 1995, public transit ridership across the country is up 37.2 percent, which is outpacing the 20.3 percent population growth.
Every month, Eagle Transit provides 8,200 rides and more than 95,000 annually. Agency on Aging Director Lisa Sheppard says that number will only increase as the county’s population grows, specifically the elderly population. According to a 2013 state report, five years from now seniors will make up nearly one-fifth of the county population. The study, sponsored by the Census and Economic Information Center of the Montana Department of Commerce, predicts that Flathead County will gain more than 6,000 seniors between 2010 and 2018.
“The single biggest challenge for Eagle Transit in the next five years will be the growing elderly population,” Sheppard said. “(But) I want the entire community to know we’re here because it’s a great tool for the community, for everyone from students to the elderly.”
Since the late 1980s, Eagle Transit has offered bus service throughout the county and, initially, it was aimed at older citizens who could no longer drive on their own. Seniors are still a critical part of the bus service’s mission and a Dial-A-Ride door-to-door service is available to those who meet certain criteria. Eagle Transit also offers inner-city routes in Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls and the city-to-city commuter runs in the mornings and evenings.
The entire operation is based out of a facility south of Kalispell where the 11 buses are stored and maintained and drivers are dispatched. The job of organizing the entire operation falls to transportation manager Jim Boyd. Under Boyd are 11 drivers, one administrative assistant and two dispatchers. The dispatcher can keep track of where each bus is through GPS technology. They also help route Dial-A-Ride trips.
Eagle Transit has an annual budget of more than $1.1 million, which is funded through state and federal grants, local taxes, fares and advertising. Eagle Transit makes about $45,000 each year by wrapping the buses with advertisements. It also has an $800,000 contract to run shuttle buses inside Glacier National Park during the summer.
In 2013, Eagle Transit commissioned a five-year transit development plan. A Colorado-based transportation consultant company compiled the report and recommended, among other things, expanded service hours and new routes, including a route to Lakeside and one connecting Whitefish and Columbia Falls. Sheppard said expansions like that would take more money and community support. Those who do ride the bus are overwhelmingly in support of it, according to a 2013 onboard survey, that found that 93 percent of riders were satisfied with the service.
In the short-term, Sheppard hopes to market the service even more and let people know that Eagle Transit is there to serve the community.
“People here grow up driving cars and it’s tough for someone to change that,” Sheppard said.
“But once people start using the service it becomes a necessity,” Boyd added.
For more information abut Eagle Transit, visit www.flathead.mt.gov/eagle.
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