Rebranded County Transit Service Hits the Streets

Formerly Eagle Transit, public transportation service is now called Mountain Climber; on-demand ride service app forthcoming

By Micah Drew
Flathead County’s public transit Mountain Climber bus in Kalispell on Jan. 28, 2021. This bus is equipped with ski storage bins for trips up to Whitefish Mountain Resort. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Flathead County’s fleet of transit vans and buses has taken on a bold, colorful new look.

The formerly white Eagle Transit vehicles, with only a single-colored line to indicate which service was provided, are now eye-catchingly wrapped in blue and green landscapes with the transit service’s new name, Mountain Climber, emblazoned in white.

In December, the first vehicle in the fleet, a van, got the new wrap done. On Jan. 19, the first bus to get the upgraded look hit the streets, and the full fleet is expected to be finished by the end of May.

“Every day we’re getting a little more feedback from the riders and they love the new look,” Elizabeth Wood, with Eagle Transit Mountain Climber, said. “When we came up with the logos and wraps for the buses, we were trying to take into account what Flathead Valley is — we’ve got winter and summer — so the vehicles have skiing on one side and hiking on the other.”

The rebrand is part of a years-long plan to make the county’s transportation services more accessible to citizens. The ambitious plan will ultimately include an expansion of the current 21-vehicle fleet, new routes added to the system and better access to recreational areas, including Whitefish Mountain Resort and Glacier National Park.

Since the start of the pandemic, some of the expansion plans have been put on hold as the transit service has canceled fixed routes and shifted primarily to an on-demand program.

According to Lisa Sheppard, director of the county’s Agency on Aging, ridership over the last few months was down 40% compared to the same time period a year ago, due to COVID-19 and the suspension of fixed routes around Kalispell in September. However, the on-demand service has rapidly risen in popularity.

“It’s been very interesting to watch; it’s extremely popular with the riding public,” Sheppard told the county commissioners at a Jan. 19 meeting. “It’s a lot easier to get a ride from where you are to where you’re going than to get to a bus stop … especially in the wintertime.”

The on-demand service allows patrons to place a call to the transit dispatch center and request a pickup.

Flathead County’s public transit Mountain Climber bus in Kalispell on Jan. 28, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When the service launched in September, 75 rides were requested the first day. That number climbed to a daily average of 121 in October and 167 in December, with a single day high of 228.

Currently, on-demand rides are limited to Kalispell, but the department plans to expand the service to Whitefish in the next few weeks.

To aid skiers and snowboarders dealing with parking hassles on Big Mountain, Eagle Transit Mountain Climber started a new Saturday fixed route in December, the Kalispell Ski Connect. The fare-free route picks up riders from the Kalispell Walmart and takes them to downtown Whitefish and on to Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Wood said that in addition to skiers looking to avoid the drive to and from the mountain, the route allows Kalispell locals to get to Whitefish for a day of shopping or dining without having to deal with parking.

The first bus leaves Kalispell at 6:40 a.m. and the last departure from Whitefish Mountain Resort Village is 6:05 p.m.

In an additional move to bolster the new Mountain Climber’s reach, the transit service now operates as its own department, Flathead County Public Transportation, removing it from under the Agency on Aging umbrella.

“There was a perception in town that we were primarily a service for elderly and disabled folks,” Wood said. “Rebranding lets the community know that we’re here for everyone, and it makes the service more user friendly. We’re not leaving anyone out.”

To make the on-demand service more accessible for all riders, Wood said the department is finalizing work on a ride-service app to make the system operate similar to other rideshare programs such as Uber and Lyft.

“The app will cut down on phone traffic to the dispatch office and make it a better experience overall for the riders,” Wood said. “With the app, it will help increase ridership efficiency, so we should be able to get more rides per hour per driver.”

The department hopes to have the app in place sometime in May.

To learn more about the Eagle Transit Mountain Climber services, visit the Mountain Climber Facebook page or the county website https://flathead.mt.gov/eagle/. To schedule an on-demand ride, call dispatch at (406) 758-5728.

micah@flatheadbeacon.com

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