Montana and North Dakota show need for transit service in rural areas

By Mary Ebeling

Transit services provide critical connectivity within and between communities of all sizes—urban and rural. A robust transportation system that includes public transit provides access to goods and services, and economic opportunity for those who cannot, or choose not to, drive. Rural communities face a particular challenge in providing transportation options to their residents, even as access to transit increases in importance for rural communities. Long distances increase costs for providing transportation infrastructure, and low population densities result in lower tax revenues.  According to equity and quality of life measures, limited access to transit in rural areas places serious constraints on economic activity.

Two transit agencies in rural Montana and North Dakota offer best practice examples of how to provide public transit in rural areas and prove there is demand for service in these locales. Transit in these locations faces numerous challenges, from distance, low population density, dispersed jobs, school access, and medical transport. Recognizing the unmet demand and wanting to increase equitable access to the transportation system led to the founding of the North Central Montana Transit system in 2009.  NCM Transit immediately exceeded ridership estimates, showing the true nature of the demand for public transit in very rural areas. Initial projections expected a few hundred riders in the first quarter, but over 13,000 people rode the bus in the first 200 days of service. Prairie Hills Transit in North Dakota runs a 6-county service area spanning over 12,000 square miles.  The success of systems like Prairie Hills, and NCM Transit illustrates the demand for and importance of rural transit.

Transit helps improve mobility in rural communities. For example, as more people seek to age in place, many long-term rural residents find themselves losing the ability to drive at the same time their transportation needs begin to increase. Rural transit may not look like that “big city” bus many of us commonly think of. Rural transit may vary from a shared ride taxi system in remote villages, to vans, smaller 18-seat capacity buses, or even shorter length heavy duty buses.

Federal and state dollars to support rural transit are limited, so financing a system in an area as sparsely populated as northern Montana or North Dakota requires creativity. Partnerships are absolutely necessary for systems in the country’s rural areas. By casting a wide net to identify partners that can help shape and fund transit, these systems bring in business interests, educational systems, local and tribal governments, economic development interests, and medical/health care communities. All of these interest groups recognize the importance of providing this transportation and the role it plays in livability and quality of life.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.